My Ancestor Score: Quality vs. Quantity?

I have read a few blogs recently reporting their “Ancestor Score”. Randy Seaver did a Saturday challenge about it and Ancestry blogger Crista Cowan has a YouTube video on how to calculate your score if you use Ancestry as your genealogy database.

So, are you competitive? I like to think I am not, but I was a little embarrassed to post my score because it seems so low compared to everyone else’s.

Rachelle's Ancestor Score

Rachelle’s Ancestor Score

My excuses:

  • I stopped collecting hints for the older generations on Ancestry a few years ago because there is rarely any evidence that they are the correct ancestors. I only add a new generation if I have documents that prove it.
  • I have been doing deep research into individual ancestors which takes a lot of time. I have been working on Rev. John McNair all year (and this is my second pass at him) and there is no sign that I have exhausted all the material that is available on him.
  • I have done very little research across the pond in England, Germany etc. There has been so much research in the United States to keep me busy, I have saved the European research for “later.”
  • I need to travel to particular locations to get documents to break brick walls. e.g. Mississippi.
  • I have some really hard ancestors to find (insert whine here) like my Mexican/Spanish  migrants from 1870 who lived in Santa Cruz, California.

But my score is going to better next year….because I am just a little competitive.

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Telling Your Story: The Lessons of Memoirs

The Art of MemoirI love to read memoirs about people I admire or who have an interesting tale to tell. The three I have read most recently have some important lessons about writing our own history. I don’t know about you but writing about my life has been difficult, especially about my childhood. In my scrapbooks, often the best I have done is to label photos with names, dates and locations. I once tried to do a scrapbook called “All About Me” and got hopelessly derailed at the very beginning trying to explain my parent’s wedding and early marriage.  I never even got to my birth. But as genealogists, we know that it is more at stake than just researching and documenting the stories of our ancestors, it is about telling our own narrative for the next generation.  What would you give to have your great-grandparent’s diary, autobiography or essays they wrote about their lives?  So here are some excellent books to consider reading to get you prepared for writing the story of your life.

The first book I started with was Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir.  She is probably best known for The Liars’ Club about her unconventional Texas youth. She is also a professor at Syracuse University and teaches a seminar on writing memoirs. In this book, she deconstructs memoirs, including her own, and tells us what makes them work or fall apart.

The Death of SantiniNext, I moved on to Pat Conroy’s The Death of Santini. You will know Conroy from his novels and movies The Lords of Discipline, The Great Santini and The Prince of Tides. In The Death of Santini, Conroy tells the story of his life and relationships with his parents and siblings.  He is a magnificent storyteller; whose novels came from the infinite well of his own experiences.  Despite the horrific events that Conroy discusses in his memoir, I found myself often laughing out loud at his ability to find humor in the ridiculous circumstances.

Finally, I just finished The Rainbow Comes and Goes by Anderson Cooper and his mother Gloria Vanderbilt. Anderson Cooper is a writer and CNN journalist.  Gloria Vanderbilt is from the wealthy and influential Vanderbilt family, as well as being a writer, actress and designer. Gloria is in her early 90’s now and through a year-long e-mail correspondence with her son, she reveals her thoughts and feelings about growing up without a father, her complicated relationships with her mother, grandmother, nanny and aunt, the bitter court case fighting over her guardianship, her many love affairs and how she has continued to feel optimistic about life.

What these books taught me to think about when writing my memoirs:

  • Truth – Our minds tend to mold the past to what we can live with.  Sometimes that is putting a bright and shiny veneer on it.  Sometimes it is so difficult, we put it a box so we don’t have to look at it and then we don’t really remember it very well at all. Sometimes we change the details because that is what we have heard from others so many times that it becomes the “story” we think we remember.  But we need to write the truth of lives, not the version seen through a vaseline covered lens. It might take some work, talking with people who were observers or participants of that time of your life, meditation, writing using prompts etc., but try to get to the essence of what really happened.
  • Painful Memories – All three of these memoirs deal with difficult subjects such as alcoholism, mental illness, physical abuse, abandonment, family manipulations/dysfunctions, poor or absent parenting etc., but there is incredible beauty in the writer’s resilience.  They go on to face the past and discuss their complicated feelings about events. Through the process, they forgive their families and themselves. There is power in the truth and we have no idea what effects telling your story might have on future generations of your family.  Pat Conroy literally changed the attitudes of Americans towards the value of therapy through his novel The Prince of Tides.
  • “Carnality” – Mary Karr talks about the necessity of including “carnality” in our writing. This is a reminder to include the sensory and physical details in your stories.  Write about the taste of peaches from your tree in the family garden, the smell of lilacs from your mother’s lingerie drawer, the feel of your father’s beard against your skin when he kissed you goodnight or the sight of your first bike under the Christmas tree. Was it red or blue? Was it new or 2nd hand from your older sister and repainted and given a new white basket with ribbons to make it new again? Dig deep for those specifics, they are still there in your conscious or unconscious mind.  This is what will move your reader from their heads to touching their hearts.
  • The Rainbow Comes and GoesMortality – Have you noticed that you have moved into the next generation slot? Age is moving us closer to the finish line and we are or will soon be the matriarchs and patriarchs of the family. Perhaps you have postponed sitting down to write until retirement or you get a large block of time? Pat Conroy just passed away from pancreatic cancer that he didn’t know he had until a few weeks before he died. I am so grateful that he wrote The Death of Santini and mourn all the books we will never have from him because of his death at 70.
  • Your Voice – You need to tell the story…no one is going to tell it like you and remember the things you do. In listening to Gloria Vanderbilt read her portions of the book on the audio version I listened to, her voice breaks when talking about her nanny Dodo and certain childhood memories….80 years later and she is still moved to tears by what happened to her. I suspect that most of us are all still trying to make sense of our childhoods and what it meant. Getting your story told from your perspective is essential! Anderson Cooper had to research his own mother’s life, looking at newspapers and film footage because they had never discussed her childhood beyond the basics before they started this e-mail exchange. Don’t make your children get your story from public records and second-hand sources.  They will want to hear it in your words.

I have been talking to my Grandmother for years about her life and very seldom have I been able to get her to go deeper than the “party line”. She would have been a great political spin doctor had she been born in more recent generations. What have you not told your children? And I am not just talking about the historical facts, but your feelings about them. Don’t we owe our descendants more than the vague chronology of events or even worse the “myths” that were created?  Tell your story, for you and for your children.

Posted in Books, Genealogy General, Writing Family History | Tagged , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Non-Fiction Writing: Lessons from Erik Larson

Dead WakeI struggle with bridging the gap between writing dry informational biography and creating captivating non-fiction when writing about my ancestors.  I don’t want to add creative flourish if it is not completely accurate and based on some historical evidence.  There are so many challenges to finding the right atmospheric background that gives a story texture and mood that we can also footnote. Let’s face it, sometimes we don’t even have a physical description of our ancestor.  Did he have red or brown hair? Was she short or tall? Who knows? How do we make the reader fall into the story of our ancestor and get to know their character when we have so few illustrations of it in the documents they left behind. Urgh. That is why I read a lot of non-fiction writing and try to learn from the authors on how they make facts rich, exciting and weave them into the overall narrative.

the devil in the white cityLast week, Erik Larson came to Knoxville to speak about his latest book Dead Wake, The Last Crossing of the Lusitania.  I was able to support Knox County Library’s fundraising efforts and hear the author of the brilliant Devil in the White City discuss his writing process.  Larson is an entertaining speaker and he amused the audience with stories and a few thinly veiled political innuendos.

Here are some things I learned about how Larson writes:

  • He sees himself as “animator of history”.  It is not his goal to inform, but to create a rich experience of the past.
  • He uses very few photos because “it takes the reader away from the text.” There is one picture of the Lusitania and a map of Southwest Great Britain in 1914 in his latest book.
  • In the Garden of the BeastsHe likes to “find historical details that will light the reader’s imagination.” Ex. Carl Sandburg’s lock of hair that Larson found at the Library of Congress that proved the affair between the Ambassador’s daughter, Martha Dodd and Carl Sandburg (In the Garden of the Beasts).
  • He believes that if you tell a story properly with compelling characters, you will get lost in the story.  Ex. The story of Nellie in Dead Wake. Her diary was found floating on the water after the Lusitania sank, but Nellie perished.
  • In selecting the correct story to tell, he looks for 1) an interesting idea to begin with 2) a very powerful narrative arc and 3) rich archival materials.  He says, “it’s a lot like looking for a spouse”!
  • He spends 2 years to research a story and 2 years to write it, with a little bleed over in the middle. (Yikes…that explains what is taking so long with my book on Rev. McNair…even though I am half way done with writing, I am still researching when I find gaps.)
  • He has shelved ideas after doing some research.  What helps to make his decision if a subject will work is by doing a draft book proposal that includes 1) a sample chapter 2) a summary of the book 3) an outline of what will be included.

Writing genealogical history is not quite the same as writing the biography of a famous person or the history of a well-known event.  We will have won the lottery if we have “rich archival materials” for most of our ancestors, but we can dig deep for the historical context of the events that surrounded them and write about those.  Pick up one of Larson’s books and you will have an excellent example of how to it.

Posted in Genealogy General, Writing Family History | Tagged | 2 Comments

Mom – Diana (Dee) Lee Cork Kemp Turner Joy Sybrandt (1943-2011)

Dee and Rachelle 1964

Dee and Rachelle 1964

In honor of Women’s History Month, I wanted to remember my Mother on what would have been her 73rd birthday. Ours was a complicated relationship; while we always shared a love for one another, sometimes we had a difficult time understanding the other.  She came of age in the late 1950’s prior to the countercultural revolution and the women’s movement.  In many ways, she would have been much happier as a stay at home mother rather than a working woman, but circumstances and a changing world compelled her to find work as a waitress and secretary.

Mom went through a particularly difficult time in her early 30’s and became an alcoholic. She almost lost everything but found the inner strength to become sober when she was 38. She remained so for over 30 years until her death.  This experience gave her tremendous compassion for others who faced personal challenges.

The Joy Family 1971

The Joy Family 1972

When I was a child, Mom learned to sew by making clothes for my Barbie dolls. Can you imagine working on such tiny pieces of material? She graduated to making clothes for me and my sister Raquelle, as seen here in the picture of us in matching outfits.  She loved to create and this was the beginning of a lifelong passion for working with her hands. She made cloth and porcelain dolls, jewelry and towards her final years became an accomplished glass artist. I always admired her patience and ability to work with blindingly small and difficult materials until she got the just the right effect she was looking for.

Lamp Dee Sybrandt Mountain Artist Guild Calendar


Blue glass box Dee Sybrandt Mountain Artist Guild Calendar






Mom was an extrovert and loved to be around people.  She made friends with everyone she met, but she took it further than just kindness. Besides her love for her children and grandchildren, she believed in giving back to her community and was always active on the board of her favorite animal, children and art groups.

We were so different. I was the reader, introvert and couldn’t wait to go to college. I loved being a mother, but working gave me the intellectual stimulation and self-esteem that I needed. I took my clothes to the dry cleaner to be repaired or used that magic tape to hem pants.  The outside differences were so obvious, I sometimes forgot to see the similarities between us.

Dee Sybrandt 2009

Dee Sybrandt 2009

At Mom’s memorial service I spoke about the things she taught me by her example:

  • Always tip well – waitresses and waiters do not get paid very much. They count on their tips for a living wage.
  • People come in all shapes, sizes, colors, religions etc. – do not judge them for what is on the outside, find out who they are inside.
  • Be kind to animals – they are defenseless and depend on humans to protect them.
  • Life is funny, people are funny – find the humor every day and laugh a lot.
  • Volunteer – volunteer your time and your gifts even if you don’t have cash. Giving makes you a better person.  It will do far more for you than it will do for the cause you are working on.
  • Everybody makes mistakes – apologize and make amends, but move on and don’t let it prevent you from being a better person now and in the future.
  • Everyone gets frightened and scared – but don’t let that stop you from doing what you want to do.
  • Don’t judge people – you don’t know what that person has been through and their whole story.  You don’t know what you would have done in the same situation.
  • On fashion – Color is good! Use a flash of it to express your personality in your socks, jewelry or scarf.
  • Whatever your limitations or challenges, work around it, have fun and contribute to the world in some way!

After the service, one of my mother’s friends came up to me and said, “Any mother would have been so proud to have had those things said about her.”  Isn’t that the truth?  I hope my children can say similar things about me when I die.  I miss my mother every day and I so wish we had one more day to talk and try to figure one another out. I wish I had one more day to tell her how much I love and admire her.

Posted in Genealogy General, Women Ancestors | Tagged | 2 Comments

When Someone Doesn’t Like Your Ancestor

Grand National Temperance Banner N. Currier 1851 Library of Congress

Grand National Temperance Banner – N. Currier 1851
Library of Congress

It shouldn’t be surprising that our ancestors were not universally loved, even the most virtuous of them. Therefore, when we are writing a biography of an ancestor, how do we include their bad press? Watching the political race this season is a reminder that just because someone says something about the other candidate doesn’t make it true, but it very well might have an element of truth and we must address it. We need to be thorough reporters to make sure we get our facts correct and write a fair and objective summary of the event. We need to track every lead to ferret out the truth so that anyone fact checking us later won’t find something to contradict our description.

In my “exhaustive” search for documents related to Rev. John McNair, I found the diary of Matthias Zahm who lived in Lancaster, Pennsylvania during the same time period.  It is obvious from his description of Rev. McNair, that he did not like him at all. Zahm mentions a temperance event in March 1846 where the Daughters of Temperance presented a Bible to the Sons of Temperance at the Lutheran Church of Lancaster. He goes on to say:

“It came off to the satisfaction of both Societies, although great efforts were made by some sectarian snakes in the grass, The mind of the Rev’d John McNair was warped to such a degree, that, although a Member of the Division, he positively refused to take any part in the matter, the Revd George Glessner took offence, because the Lutheran Church was taken, in preference of the German Reformed, where he officiates as Pastor and he took no part in it; the Revd – Thomas said that he has only been a looker on in Venice, and therefore, he refused to even offer up a prayer during the ceremony of presentation of the (Bible) thus deserted by the whole of the Clergy, except the Revd George F. Bahnson……………so unexpected they seen the Revd John McNair make his appearance in the church; for what purpose is best known to God, and the Revd Gentleman himself, certain it is that while there, No part of the ceremony was allotted to him.[i]

Wow!  I was a little startled by the language Zahm used in reference to Rev. McNair; it was the first negative description I have seen of him so far.  I have to see what caused this reaction and determine if it indicates something more pervasive about Rev. McNair’s character.


  • There was a Temperance event where both the Sons and Daughters of Temperance were in attendance.
  • Supporters of both organizations were also members of different religious denominations in the community.
  • Rev. McNair (Presbyterian) and ministers from other denominations declined to participate and/or speak at the event.
  • One minister did agree to speak, Rev. George F. Bahnson (a Moravian minister).
  • Though Rev. McNair had declined to participate in the ceremony, he attended the meeting.

What questions should we be asking? Where should we be looking for the answers?

  • What church denomination was Mattias Zahm from?  (diary, biography etc.)
  • What were Zahm’s background and prejudices? (diary, biography etc.)
  • What was the history of the different denominations getting along when fighting for the same cause? (Newspapers, history of society, church histories)
  • What would be the reason that Rev. McNair and the other ministers would decline to participate? (Newspapers, history of society, church histories)
  • Are there other examples of Rev. McNair not getting along with others? (continue searching all resources in the locations he lived in)
  • Why did Rev. McNair choose to attend the meeting? (Newspapers, history of society, church histories)
  • Who was Rev. George F. Bahnson and why did he agree to participate? (Newspapers, history of society, church histories, biography and/or personal papers)

What else should I research?  Where else should I check?  Of course, I might never be able to find additional information about this particular event, but I have to try.  Remember not to ignore the negative observations about your ancestors, it might even make a richer story to include them.


[i] Robert H. Goodell, “Matthias Zahm’s Diary,” Lancaster County Historical Society 48 (1943): 61-92, specifically 85.

Posted in Genealogy General, McNair Family, Writing Family History | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

The Temperance Movement and Rev. John McNair

The Progress of Intemperance Published by N. Currier c. 1841 Library of Congress

The Progress of Intemperance
Published by N. Currier c. 1841
Library of Congress

Sort of the opposite of “got me at hello” huh?  Napping yet?  No guilt, that was how I felt when I got to the temperance section of the book I am writing about Rev. John McNair.  But without a doubt, the social habits that caused the temperance movement and the movement itself would have had an effect on your ancestors in some way.

Did you know that in the 1820’s people drank three times the amount of alcohol today?  There were a variety of historical reasons, but the primary cause was that beer, wine, cider and hard alcohol were safer and/or cheaper to drink than water, milk, tea and coffee.  People developed habits and customs around drinking. Workers were served alcohol at their breaks by their employers. They literally drank from the time they woke up to the time they went to bed.  In many of the books, I read it was commonly thought that America in the early 1800’s was “a nation of drunks.”  Social reformers and religious leaders recognized the problem and started the American Temperance Society in 1826.  By 1835 1.5 million people had joined chapters in nearly every town across America.

Tree of Temperance by A.D. Fillmore Library of Congress

Tree of Temperance by A.D. Fillmore
Library of Congress

There were many who proposed total abstinence from alcohol and wanted to pass laws to prohibit production.  Maine was the first state to pass a law to prohibit liquor production in 1851, with 14 other states following with some version of the legislation.  However, there were many who objected to any type of legislation that would impinge on the rights of Americans including the right to drink alcohol.  They believed moderation in drinking was the answer, not regulation.

This is how I first discovered how deeply involved my ancestor Rev. John McNair was in the temperance movement.  He had a debate about the Maine Liquor Law with an anti-legislation activist G. J. Beebe in 1852. You can access the debate online and my local library even has a copy.  (McNair is spelled McNeir, but since Beebe self-published the debate the accuracy in facts, transcription, and spelling are all suspect!)  Surprisingly, the debate  made some interesting reading because Beebe arguments against legislation certainly came true when Prohibition was passed in 1929.  Also, you can see the same liberal vs. conservative philosophies regarding constitutional interpretation being played out now 160 years later.  Further proving that the more things change, the more things stay the same! I was also able to get valuable insight into how Rev. McNair was perceived by his opponent and what his debate style was.   So despite my initial feelings of boredom, I was able to find quite a bit of information about the temperance movement that needed to be included in Rev. McNair’s book.

I encourage you to research if your ancestors might have had an interest in temperance or perhaps rioted about it like they did in Chicago in 1855?

Resources for Your Ancestors

  • Newspapers – Meeting notices or reports might include your ancestors as participants
  • Historical/Genealogical Journals – Articles regarding the movement and members
  • Archives – Organizational meeting minutes etc.
  • Church Histories – Activities sponsored by churches and their members
  • County Histories – Town activities will mention popular organizations
  • Court Records – Ancestors arrest records for drunkenness or riots (I have a few of these for a different family!)

Historical Background

Burns, Eric. The Spirits of America: A Social History of Alcohol. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2004.

Cheever, Susan. Drinking in America: Our Secret History. New York: Twelve, 2015.

McNeir, John and G. J. Beebe. Maine Liquor Law Debate at Clinton, New Jersey, Wednesday, October 9, 1852: between Rev. Mr. McNeir, Pastor of Presbyterian Church, Clinton, N.J., and G.J. Beebe, editor “Banner of Liberty,” Middletown, N.Y. Middletown: Printed at the Banner Office, 1853.

Pegram, Thomas R. Battling Demon Rum: The struggle for a Dry America, 1800-1933. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1998.

Reynolds, David S. Waking Giant, America in the Age of Jackson. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2008.

Temperance Movement:

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Civil War Tax Lists on

I have recently been working with the Civil War Federal Tax Lists on and on the off-chance you haven’t used them, I thought a quick overview might be beneficial. I have been surprised by how many of my ancestors could be found in the tax rolls and the various facts that they revealed. Here is an example of the taxes for Dr. Thomas Edgar Hunt.  He was probably the most wealthiest of my distant relatives, so he was required to pay many different taxes on his income, carriages, watches, piano and his physician’s license:

Dr. T. Edgar Hunt Federal Tax Assessment 1865

Dr. T. Edgar Hunt Federal Tax Assessment 1865

History and Details of the Law

To raise money to finance the Civil War, Congress enacted an income tax for annual incomes over $600, taxes on licenses (doctors, lawyers, brewers, merchants, bankers, jugglers (yes jugglers and any slight of hand occupations) etc.), taxes on luxury items (watches, carriages, pianos, silver plate etc.) and monthly taxes on certain retail goods and services. During the war, this effected only states that were in the Union, but after the war, Southern states were taxed as well. A detailed article on the law can be found on the NARA website in Prologue Magazine.

Here is an example of one of my Southern ancestors, who after the war went into the retail and liquor business in Arkansas.

Matthew P. McCrary Aug 1869 Federal Tax Assessment

Matthew P. McCrary Aug 1869 Federal Tax Assessment

If your subject was poor, subsistence farmers or away at war, you probably won’t find your ancestors, but I found relatives I didn’t expect to who had luxury items or were tradesmen. So, check everyone who was in the U.S. during this period of time.

Index and Searching

Civil War Tax Lists

Civil War Tax Lists –

The dates of the tax lists of 1862-1918 are misleading, as the later years of 1872-1918 really only include the states of Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico and Arizona.  The collection primarily references taxes for the period of 1862-1866. Find the states and date ranges of tax records included in the database here.

States and Years of Tax Records

States and Dates of Tax Records –

The index has some issues, so be sure to try multiple spellings of the last name, experiment without the first name if the last name is uncommon, and try with and without the county/state.  If you find one relative, make sure you review the whole “District” for other relatives who might not be showing up in the index. Sometimes you will get too many results if someone has a common name for the area. I was looking for James Ramsay Dey in Hunterdon County and surrounding counties in New Jersey and got these results.

James Ramsay Dey Tax List Search

I narrowed down by Hunterdon County and got this:

James Ramsay Dey Tax List Search Hunterdon County

He lived in Warren County in 1862-1863 (the county just northwest of Hunterdon) and moved to Hunterdon County sometime in 1864.  The index did not show him in Hunterdon County, but by reviewing the district pages before and after my Hunt ancestors, I finally find him in Clarksville, Hunterdon County in the 1864 tax rolls.

James Ramsay Dey 1864 Federal Tax Assessment

James Ramsay Dey 1864 Federal Tax Assessment

Tax Districts

I wasn’t sure if I had the correct Bernard/Bernhardt Knorr from Buffalo, New York when I found this record. New York had many districts, so it isn’t clear from “Tax District 30” and the names in the location column that these people are actually living in Buffalo, Erie County, New York.  I was able to confirm that I had the right district by checking this National Archives article for a breakdown of tax districts for each state (scroll down the list for the state and details). In case you are wondering why Bernhardt Knorr had 11 sheepskins? He was a tanner! It seems like an expensive tax to pay monthly and makes me think differently about his economic status.  Perhaps he wasn’t as poor as I always thought.

Bernard Knorr Monthly Taxes for July 1864

Bernard Knorr Monthly Taxes for July 1864

Good luck and if you find something interesting about your family in the index, let me know!

Posted in Civil War, Dey Family, Genealogy General, Hunt Family, Knorr Family, McCrary Family | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments