Thomas B. Hagen History Center

The Erie Society for Genealogical Research has moved its office to the newly opened Thomas B. Hagen History Center, in the Carriage House of the Watson-Curtze Mansion at 356 West Sixth Street.

new reading room

The grand opening gala was held on August 29th. It was a lovely evening. The renovated Carriage House is beautiful, although I was sad to see that it appears the research space in the new reading room is quite a bit smaller than the old space on State Street. As a volunteer in the Archives, and a member of the ESGR, I recall many times when the old reading room was filled to capacity, so I do wonder if we’ll end up fighting each other for a chair when the new space is open for researchers, Thursdays through Saturdays, 11am to 5pm. Note that hours have changed and researchers no longer have access to the library on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, so plan accordingly! Also, if you need to research in the library’s microfilm collection, you may want to hold off for a bit, or at least call before stopping by, as they hadn’t moved the microfilm readers as of yesterday.

The ESGR’s office space is, as I understand it, located on the second floor of the Carriage House, which I did not have a chance to see the evening of the Gala. I believe there may also be a larger room of the size needed to hold our monthly membership meetings; however, I’m not sure the second floor can accommodate visitors who have trouble with stairs, as, unlike the old history center, there is no elevator. [Is it just me, or is this a strange and rather major oversight?] The first floor reading room doesn’t appear large enough for our meetings, particularly those featuring a guest speaker, but I could be entirely wrong on this point as I’d had at least a glass and a half of champagne before I took the tour :-) At any rate, the staff at the historical society has done a remarkable job with this move, although I fear they may be too exhausted at this point to enjoy the results of their preternatural efforts. It’s a gorgeous space, and will be a joy to work in. And, no small matter, parking is ample and free!

The Erie news did a nice story on the new space:

While a volunteer of both the ECHS and the ESGR, I speak for neither of those organizations, and the opinions and observations expressed here are entirely my own.

Index to N.W. Russell’s Manuscript on Erie County History

The pioneers of Erie County were proud of their efforts to settle the wilds of what was only newly part of Northwest Pennsylvania, and the Russell family was no different. Captain Nathaniel Williard Russell, son of early settler Hamlin Russell, and grandson of Revolutionary War patriot Nathaniel Russell, of Connecticut, is credited with recording much of the county’s early days. He wrote a series of newspaper articles on the History of Erie County which ran in The (Erie) Gazette from 1870 to 1886. He also co–authored Part II of Warner & Beers’ county history. An index of names from his original manuscript, housed at the Erie County Historical Society’s Library & Archives, was compiled by the Erie Society for Genealogical Research (ESGR) in 2001.That index is in the process of being published, over a number of issues, in the ESGR’s quarterly bulletin, Keystone Kuzzins, wherein, if you sign up to have the issues sent to you digitally, you will be able to search on names.

The impetus for Russell’s work, according to the publishers of Warner & Beers’ 1884 History of Erie County, a death bed conversation between Nathaniel and his ailing father Hamlin, in which the elder man is alleged to have said:1

I have made a great mistake in not keeping, for the good of future generations, a historical record of the advent and progress of the early settlers. Your retentive memory can yet collect them, and put them in a shape that will be of great use to the inhabitants hereafter. Promise me you will do so.

And, so he did, in the form of a weekly column in the Erie Gazette, spanning 1870–1886.2  He also co–authored, with Benjamin Whitman, Part II of Warner & Beers History, dealing with the settlement and development of the county. Nelson also acknowledges his reliance on Nathaniel’s work in his Biographical, Dictionary, and Historical Reference, published in 1896.3

Apart from the fact that, as researchers, we are fortunate there was such a man as Nathaniel Russell, with a passion for history and a wish, much like our own, to preserve it for future generations, we must also take heed: We are the Nathan Russells of our time. As you study the documents made by your ancestors, and diligently record the information within, also task yourself with noting the history of the eras and the context in which your ancestors made those records. It makes a difference. It gives us a better understanding of our origins and heritage and preserves it for those who pick up the work we leave behind, either to carry it on or merely to learn from whence they came.


1.  The History of Erie County… (Chicago: Warner & Beers, 1884), iii.

2.  See WorldCat’s listing on the newspaper articles at : accessed May 2015.

3.  S.B. Nelson, Biographical, Dictionary, and Historical Reference Book of Erie County, Pennsylvania (Erie: S.B. Nelson, 1896), iii.


GRIP 2015 Day Two!

Day two of Advanced Research Methodology got off to an early start with the 8:00am homework review, at least for those of us who are taking the “homework track” which, no surprise, is all of us. Last night’s assignment had to do with using American State Papers, the Congressional Serial Set, and the House and Senate journals. Despite Rick Sayre’s excellent talks on this subject, I confess I find them to be one of the more difficult to maneuver through. Still, the wealth of information found in them is well worth the effort. I plan on adding the Library of Congress Century of Lawmaking site to my arsenal of repositories that are the foundation of my standard research plan. Not every situation will call for this, but I’d rather look and find nothing than miss a gold nugget!

Pam Sayre was our morning guest lecturer. She gave a fabulous talk on using archival records: original manuscripts and other unpublished sources. She detailed a whole host of online catalog sources, some of which I’ve never heard of and others I don’t use nearly as often as I should. For example, I had no idea of the richness of the Library of Congress’s online finding aids to their manuscript collections. She gave us some excellent tips on getting the most about of the various search engines, such as some little known ways of accessing the NUCMC printed volumes from 1959 to 1985 online.  She also shared with us her own, took-weeks-to-create, step-by-step guide for using the NARA finding aids. Thank you, Pam!

We get about ninety minutes for lunch. I cut mine short to stop by Maia’s Book Shop, and let me just say, if you don’t know about Maia, you are missing out! Seriously. Although she has a website,here, she conducts a good deal of business at the various genealogy institutes and conferences around the country. She carries the usual genealogy reference books, but the real treat is getting to look through the specialty books she brings. For example, because we’re in Pittsburgh, there are boxes and boxes of books about Pennsylvania records: compilations, local collections, and topics pertinent to the western part of the state. She opened this morning. It’s always a bit of a mad rush to see what new treasures Maia might have brought. She lets us set aside the books we want in piles at the back of the room, and we have till Friday morning to buy them.

Rick Sayre spoke about military records in the afternoon. I regularly use the compiled military service records and pensions applications at NARA, Fold3, and Ancestry, but Rick’s presentation went well beyond that, to the other kinds of records generated by military service: things like medical records, quartermaster records, and court martials. He also covered records the military kept on civilians, an especially underused record set.

The day wrapped up with Tom’s presentation on transcriptions and abstracts. It was very hands-on, which was exactly what I needed after such an intense day of learning! Our homework for tonight was to transcribe and abstract a document of his choosing, in this case an early New England quit claim deed, and then, similar to the requirements for the document portion of the BCG certification portfolio, we had to decide on a specific research question, for which the document provides some kind of evidence, and create a preliminary research plan based on that question. I worked with a team, and I highly recommend this approach. It took us a little over two hours to complete the assignment and I learned a great deal, not only from doing the work, but also from the interaction with my fellow genealogists. One other advantage to a group effort…it’s a comfort to see I’m not the only one with lots to learn! As Tom pointed out in class today, the fact that we  (all thirty of us) took about a half hour to group transcribe just three lines from a two hundred year old document reaffirms that we are none of us too advanced to be taking this class!

GRIP 2015 Genealogical Research Institute of Pittsburgh

Back in Pittsburgh for another week-long genealogy institute! My third. This time it’s Thomas W. Jones’ course of Advanced Research Methodology.

The instructors here are at the top of the field; experts in a variety of specialties. I learned so much from Rick and Pam Sayre on Land Records in 2013, and from Judy Russell on the Law in 2014 Although only one day in, I know this year will be no different. My introduction to Dr. Tom Jones and the world of genealogy  scholarship  was at the Boston University Genealogical Research course in 2011. What a profound eye opener! I had no idea how little I knew! During that course, I realized my  approach to genealogical research would have to change from one focused on the haphazard gathering of information and as many names in my family tree as possible, to one which was evidence based and adhered to the Genealogical Proof Standard. The single best thing I did in an effort to do that, was to start reading the National Genealogical Society Quarterly religiously. Studying its case studies. The next best thing was to set a goal of attending two educational conferences/classes per year.

What’s particularly nice about this institute, apart from it being close enough that I can get to it without flying, is that so many of my friends attend.

I remember my ProGen13 study mate, the wonderfully redoubtable Melinda Henningfield, telling me the best way to develop excellent genealogy practises, build a network of colleagues, and cultivate friendships with those colleagues, is at an institute. She was so right! Genealogists never get tired of talking about genealogy. Being surrounded by people who don’t get that glazed over look in their eyes at the mere mention of a courthouse, Ancestry, or cemetery, is such a delight!

Classes today dealt with developing an evidence orientation to our research, determining a good research question, and creating a focused research plan. Tom is a great teacher, and one of the things I particularly like about this course is that it’s not just a series of lectures. He walked us through some specific examples, and it was very interactive. I find it incredibly helpful to see how he approaches his problems. Later in the day, Rick Sayre gave a talk on Federal Records, with emphasis on the records available online at the Library of Congress’s Century of Lawmaking site: American State Papers, House and Senate journals, and the Congressional Serial Set, etc. These are wonderful, accessible, yet underused record sets, rich with details about the lives of our ancestors who for one reason or another had personal interactions with the federal government. The link to the site is here.

We had homework related to Rick’s part of the day, and there was an evening lecture on researching German origins of immigrants. All in all a tiring day but worth every minute :-)

Managing Research Projects & Tracking Searches

I’ve spent a lot of time over the last few months evaluating the options for tracking my work. In the fledgling years of my business, my client load was part-time and the work just sort of managed itself. But this past year, more months than not found me juggling three or four clients at a time, which, combined with my Editorship of the ESGR’s quarterly, added a rather unhealthy degree of anxiety to the work. (as a total aside, four clients this winter were researching Irish immigrants named James McSomething, and, just to make it more interesting, all either had wives, mothers, or sisters named Mary! Although keeping track of those projects was stressful, there was also a sense of the ridiculous, which kept the anxiety somewhat at bay :-)

In my survey of project management tools, I first considered an Excel spreadsheet, but, quickly realized I needed something more automated. Maybe automated isn’t the right word. I needed something always close at hand, so I’d remember to actually track my time, because what’s project management without the time component? Way back in another life, I was hired by a software company to create a cost accounting system, and what was immediately apparent, at least to me, was the rather large stumbling block of the lack of a corporate-wide time management system. That observation, not surprisingly, met with great resistance from the employees whose time tracking was the most critical in determining profitability: programmers and customer support staff. It had to be easy. Mindless. Effortless. The feedback on the program we took a year to design and write was that it was all those things, and, in the end, they got the cost accounting system they’d asked for in the first place.

My approach to choosing a project management for my genealogy research was the same: time based. I made a wish list:

  • Time based
  • Task driven
  • Ability to use sub-tasks
  • ALWAYS at hand
  • Simple to use
  • Minimal input

There are, it turns out, about a gazillion options (curious: gazillion is apparently a recognized word in WordPress Land!). It quickly became clear that in order for the system to work for me, I needed to be able to do it on my laptop or my phone. And, it had to be fun. Time management is drudgery. Drudgery is hard to stick with. So…… system:  (a task/to-do app)

Toggl (a time tracking app)

both, I believe, are available on Windows, iOS, and Android.
What I did:

First, I had to break my research and reporting processes into specific tasks. I also defined tags, which both and Toggl handle with ease, which fit with my business: things like Billable, Non-billable, Professional Development, all of which could potentially work with a variety of my tasks. Both apps are also capable of tracking tasks and time by clients, as well as types of clients: lineage society applicants, forensic, brick wall, etc.

Once I’d laid all that out, I loaded it into the apps and I was off and running. is not only a beautiful, multi-layered app, it has an absolutely endearing interactive personality, popping up from time to time during my day to remind me to take a breath and regroup as needed; and Toggl is what it says – it works on a toggle basis, two key strokes and I can toggle the time tracker on and off, and it too reminds me if it starts to suspect  I’ve forgotten all about it. It happens :-) Both apps are present and effortlessly accessible on my phone and my laptop.  Life is good :-)

My system helps me stay focused. I start every day with a cup of coffee and an Moment. I review my tasks, and revise my research plan where needed. Toggl keeps me on track. The benefits? Not only do I have an automated reporting system for billable client work, over time I’ve begun to see patterns in my research process which helps me to better estimate client projects and helps me to hone in on areas where I could be more efficient.

As for topic #2: tracking searches…I’ll just say this: Thomas MacEntee has some good arguments for doing this. I often incorporate the search parameters in my research log, particularly when I get negative results, but I’m not consistent. I’ll try to be more aware of that going forward.


More About My Research Log

Revamping my research log, began with considering all different sorts of logs. At first, I looked at the Excel spreadsheet Thomas MacEntee shared, here. It is a great design, and provides a lot of useful information. In particular, given that it’s Excel, the data can be sorted in any number of ways. I like that I can sort it by repository, or proof point.

The keys to being faithful to a log, at least for me, are accessibility and ease of use. And, while I use Excel for a good many things, I am much more comfortable with Word. Having abandoned my genealogy software some time ago, the majority of my research is now stored in Word documents, and I’ve come to rely on Word’s features to stay focused and on track. Whether working online or onsite at a repository, research can move rapidly in one direction or another, and the record keeping can quickly get out of hand. If online on my laptop, I find I work most efficiently when I have a window for my document, and one (or a dozen) windows open on various websites. When onsite, I find it simplest to either type my findings right into my Word document, or take handwritten notes which I type into my document later. I prefer to keep everything in one place, so introducing another software application leaves me with a bad feeling of being disorganized. Plus, if I’m somewhere without my laptop, I at least always have my smartphone to take notes with. While I can manage, with difficulty, to edit a Word document in Android, Excel spreadsheets are even more unwieldy and difficult to navigate through.

At first, I thought the simplest thing would be to just use the Research Notes section of my Research Report Word template, which is in an outline form and looks something like this:

Research Notes

 1. First source examined, in full reference note format

     a. Detailed findings 1- could be notes, an extract, abstract, or transcription

     b. Detailed findings 2, etc.

        i. My comments on source, conflicts, or discussion points. 

 1. Second source examined, etc.

This works really well in a research report, but as a reference tool, it’s a bit bulky and isn’t as easy to sort and search through as a table would be.

Evernote, on the other hand, is my goto app for pretty much of my life, and it lends itself perfectly to log keeping. I decided to create a template, which I first laid out in Word, and then copied into a note.

The Note looks like this:
2015-02-03 13.49.58

I already use Evernote for my research: I save photos of original documents taken on my smartphone to Evernote; I keep to-do lists for family names and repository check-lists; I create notes by forwarding emails with research information to my Evernote email address; and, I use the Evernote Web Clipper to instantly capture online data and digital images. Regardless of how I created it, every research note includes the SURNAME of the research subject in its title. I also use myriad tags to facilitate searching, and because Evernote indexes all the text, I can quickly find whatever I need with just a few keystrokes.

The Evernote table is structured so that the text wraps, so I can add as much information into each field as I need, without it expanding beyond the width of letter paper, because I do find it helpful to print my research notes when I’m analyzing and correlating evidence. Also, it makes it easier to copy and paste the table back into a Word document. The Evernote Desktop application makes notes available offline, so if I do take my laptop into a courthouse or archive, I can key in my findings and the note with sync later when I have an internet connection. Also, of all the note taking apps for Android, Evernote is one of the simplest, most accessible way to take notes, which means if I’m somewhere without my laptop, I can still keep my notes up to date.

Tracking Research: Keep a log!

This part of preparing for a research project is where many of us stumbled in the formative years of our genealogy adventures.At least it was the case for me. Tracking my research has been the single biggest time waster, and is at the root of many of the brick walls I ran into early on. It’s such an obvious concept…keeping a log of all the resources used in pursuit of an ancestor’s vital information or proof of a relationship. Such a log would in turn create an organized, focused to-do list, once again, brilliant in theory, but somewhat elusive when it comes to actually doing the research. It’s so much more exciting to prepare a mental list and then jump right in to the thick of things.

As I’ve said before, my client work revolves around keeping a detailed research log, which becomes an integral part of every research report. My personal research deserves the same care and attention to detail. Thomas MacEntee has created an excellent Excel spreadsheet which you can download here to track his research, and with a few modifications, I could make it my own, but I’m more of a Word girl. As appealing as an Excel log would be, I’m inclined toward creating one in Word, because that’s my comfort zone. I suspect I will have more success this way; that there’s more of a chance I’ll stick with it. Plus, I love Word tables!

Revisiting Old Research: Beginning at the Beginning

Looking back to the time when I discovered genealogy; when I felt the first stirrings of what would become a life-long addiction, if only I’d known then what I know now, I’d have approached my personal research in a much more organized way: beginning with a research plan and starting with what I know, instead of what I assumed; setting goals; conducting a self interview; and conducting family interviews, All of which I write down with detailed citations. It’s never too late, however, to pause to look at that early research with fresh eyes.

Genealogy has fascinated me for as long as I can remember. My journey began with the smallest of moments. While on a family vacation in England when I was 13, my grandfather, knowing my love of all things equestrian, gave me a faded, dog-eared photo of a man on a horse.

The photo was 50 years old and the man was my great grandfather, Leonard Turner. Granddad was patient, answering all my questions and then some; spending hour upon hour of that month long visit feeding my hunger for the past. And so it began…

Back on American soil, I painstaking drew out a pedigree chart, writing in all the information Granddad had recalled about his ancestors. As you might imagine, some of the details and family stories were more fiction than fact, but what did I know… Over the years, that treasured document became quite tattered, as I frequently erased penciled-in facts, and scribbled out the ones written in pen. The handwriting became smaller and smaller with each new fact, leaving no room for citations, even if I had known about them then, which I did not! I kept the chart in a drawer, and dug it out whenever my grandparents came for the summer, or we traveled back to England for a vacation. In the meantime, I turned to my paternal side of the family tree—markedly easier than my British roots, because I was surrounded by relatives. And their history. In fact, I sometimes felt I was living their history. Although I was born in England, I grew up in the house my father built, next to door to the house where he’d spent his childhood, two doors down from where my grandmother grew up, and about a mile down the street from the house my German Ebert ancestors lived in following their immigration to America in the 1880s.

Grampie was one of seventeen children, and I grew up visiting a good number of them at the Varrieur family compound in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, where they gathered together on Sundays. As it happened, those great aunts loved to talk about themselves! The stuff of genealogists’ dreams! None of my grandparents’ generation is alive today to answer questions in a formal interview, so I will have to rely on my love of story, and my memory of theirs. I do have documents supporting, or in some case casting doubt on, many of those stories and family remembrances, and it will be interesting to look through them as I layout some research goals for bringing the research up to standard and filling in the holes.

Migration Paths Which Led Our Ancestors to Western Pennsylvania

Our ancestors led lives as complex as ours are today. They celebrated milestones and events just like we do; they weathered hardships similar to ours; and, their actions were driven by the same hopes and fears that we face today. We tend to think that in the ‘good ole days’ back when life was simple, our ancestors lived their entire lives in one place. Family and community were everything. Travel was always difficult and often dangerous. Wagons and saddle bags were the only means for moving belongings. But, colonists and immigrants were a hardy bunch. They’d already survived a trip across the Atlantic and they were adventurers at heart. As the land of the eastern part of our country filled up, our ancestors looked westward. The earliest among them were attracted to a frontier of abundant, virgin land. Later, the draw was industry and opportunity. Some received bounty land for military service, many moved for economic or politic reasons, others followed religious leaders. They migrated with extended family and friends and tended to follow established routes, many of which were laid out by Native Americans long before the colonists arrived. Studying the routes and learning about the push and pull factors of any given time period can help us better understand our forebears and provide clues to the origins of ancestors who seemingly appeared out of thin air.

Erie, Pennsylvania, is an ethnic melting pot. Early settlers were looking for land. Later, waves of immigrants from all over Europe and Asia were attracted by opportunities which arose as industry developed along the Great Lakes. Periods of heavy migration, particular to our region, stemmed from:

1. Seventeenth century New Englanders enticed by open land
2. Post American Revolution, military bounty land.
3. Early 1800s, development of industry along canals and railroads

The first two were primarily rural to rural. The last was usually rural to urban. If you have a general idea when your ancestor arrived in Erie, study the U.S. history of that period. Was there a war? Was there crop failure or economic crisis? What were the predominant roadways and water systems in place at the time. Using historical context, you may be able to trace your ancestor’s elusive origins, by working backwards. Study maps of the time period. Your ancestor may not have made the trip west all at once. It was much more common for migrants to stop along the way for months or even years at a time, while they earned the money needed to continue on their journey. There are two excellent resources for learning more about the specific trails and routes which impacted Erie:

Eldridge, Carrie. An Atlas of Appalachian Trails to the Ohio River. Huntington, WV: CDM Printing, 1998.Eldridge, Carrie. An Atlas of Northern Trails Westward from New England. Huntington, WV: CDM Printing, 2000.

In modern times, when migration was motivated by industry, ancestors can be followed through census records. But moves west before the 1850s are harder to trace. Erie’s population grew from migration along several well–known routes.

The primary early route west from New England was the Mohawk Trail, which followed the Mohawk River. Massachusetts colonists often took a military road known as the “Old Connecticut Path,” westward from Boston to Albany, across the Berkshires, where it joined with the Mohawk Trail. This route crossed the Hudson River and then took a northerly route through the Appalachian Mountains. Loyalists took these trails into Canada, during and immediately after the American Revolution. It was along this route that the Erie Canal and railroads were built, and later the Massachusetts and New York Thruways.

If your ancestors arrived in the mid to late 1800s, especially single young men, they may have come with the canal or railroad. Look along the New York Thruway to find towns where he might have stopped for a period of time.

Braddock’s Road was a southerly route west across the Appalachian Mountains. Developed as a military road during the French and Indian Wars, this route led from the southern colonies to the Pittsburgh area. It was a route taken by many Scotch–Irish, and it was also popular among trappers and traders, heading toward trading settlements in Ohio and Michigan. If your ancestors only stopped in Erie briefly, they could have been on their way farther west.

Forbes’ Road, also military in its origins, led from Philadelphia and Harrisburg, crossing the middle of Pennsylvania to arrive at Pittsburgh.


Reference material for this article was found in Beverly Whitaker’s United States Migration Patterns, National Institute for Genealogical Studies, Toronto. Also, Ray Allen Billington’s Westward Expansion: a History of the American Frontier. 5th Ed. New York: Macmillan, 1982.