Boom and bust: genealogy edition

old farm

There’s a story in our family dating to the late 1800s. At the time, a maternal branch living just south of the Canadian border was engaged in farming – specifically, the farming of hops, which is used to brew beer. My great-aunt takes up the story, in a hand-written written account that is now part of our family history:

“Raising hops was very profitable at one time in Northern New York which caused my grandfather to buy a farm and take up raising this crop. The farm was in Burke, New York. Unfortunately, there was one bad year. When the price of hops went so low that he was ruined. He had to go back to his original trade.”

I’ve heard variations of this tale that this hops-growing ancestor was a millionaire on paper one day, and completely broke the next.

But it wasn’t the end of the world. My great-great grandfather was able to fall back on his original trade – stonemasonry, which his Irish-born father had taught him. Life went on.

I bring up this tale because much of the world is currently headed toward a deep economic crisis. Inflation. Energy shortages. Stock market selloffs. Wild fluctuations in the supply of certain types of goods. Layoffs.

Sure, it’s worrying. But most people reading this can remember recessions, layoffs, gas shortages, and inflation that was even worse. Before the pandemic, I experienced 3 major downturns as an adult – the early 1990s recession, the 2000 dot-com crash, and the 2008 financial crisis. I have childhood memories of the 1970s oil embargoes. A few readers may even recall the darkest days of the Great Depression, when the unemployment rate hit nearly 25% and Social Security wasn’t yet available.

We’ll get through it this time, just as we did back then.

Using fillable genealogy PDFs to pass down family history

We got a great question from a prospective customer about the best way to get back into genealogy … and organize records for the next generation. She wrote:

“I am getting back into researching my family and need your advice on where to begin with the forms you sell. It’s been 20 plus years since I’ve been serious about this and I want to do it correctly so that my children and grands can benefit from my work. This pile of stuff needs cleaning up!”

She went on to say that she likes the idea of our fillable genealogy PDFs, but also likes paper. Here’s our advice:

  • For those who prefer typing but like paper, we recommend using our fillable PDFs and then printing out the results to share with family (preferably on high-quality, acid-free paper, not cheap printer paper).
  • The EasyGenie 6-generation fillable PDF is great because people can print it out on 8.5×11 paper at home, or pass the PDF to a printer for printing on larger 11×17 paper, for a poster effect.
  • We also have smaller 4-generation charts and family group sheet bundled in our large print PDF set. These two charts are also fillable (note: we always recommend using the free Adobe PDF Reader for EasyGenie fillable PDFs).
  • To go back further than 6 generations, we recommend connecting the charts using the numbered spaces and “notes” field on the larger sheet.

Here’s a sample of fillable PDF. Note that the blue fields do not show up when printing.

Fillable genealogy PDF sample

Genealogy binders: What goes inside?

genealogy binderAnother piece of advice: make binders to give relatives. With the fillable PDFs, it’s easy because customers can make as many copies as they need for personal use. Here are some tips related to making genealogy binders for relatives:

  • Common approaches for binders include: one binder for each family branch, or a summary set in a single binder for each grandchild.
  • Include the fillable PDFs, copies of vital records and family letters, and old photos of ancestors.
  • EasyGenie sells basic archival storage kits and expansion sets which include everything you need to get started, including small binders, document sleeves, photo holders, and gel pens for annotating the backs of photos or copies of important documents.

The prospective customer had another requirement:

“Some of my distant family had as many as four spouses with children, and I want to include all of the information.”

This gets tricky. We do have a special PDF set for families with multiple spouses. The pedigree chart has space for one additional spouse of each ancestor, and the family group sheet can handle up to three spouses for a single ancestor. But adding any more is impossible owing to limitations of the canvas – there isn’t enough room to have extra spaces for four spouses.

What are “census substitutes”?

census substitute definition

Over the weekend, I was catching up with research on some Irish branches and re-read parts of the the excellent Genealogist’s Handbook for Irish Research by Marie E. Daly. The book mentions a useful concept that can help genealogists and family historians break through brick walls: census substitutes.

A census, such as the sample above, tallies the population of a particular area. It’s often conducted by a national, regional, or local government. The basic idea of a census substitute is to provide an alternate list if an official census is unavailable or incomplete.

Consider the 1890 U.S. census. Most of the paper records were destroyed in a 1921 fire in a Washington, D.C building. The census records are therefore not available on Ancestry, FamilySearch, MyHeritage, or anywhere else.

However, a genealogist trying to verify whether an ancestor lived in a certain town in rural New York might turn to a map of property owners in that county published in a state atlas the following year. While the 1891 atlas doesn’t duplicate the data on the 1890 census, it provides enough information for the genealogist to verify the head of household as well as his or her address, which may provide clues for further research.

map of census substitute

In other cases, a census substitute may provide information that was never tallied in any census. Such is the case for a list of military-aged men residing in a region of the Scottish Highlands in 1696, as well as the Virginia Slave Birth Index from the 1850s and 1860s, a period in which the U.S. federal census did not record the full names of African-Americans who were enslaved.

In Ireland, the first official census started in 1821, and were carried out every 10 years for the next 90 years. However, urban combat in Dublin during the Irish Civil War in 1922 resulted in all of the paper census records from the 1800s being destroyed. It was a huge, seemingly irreplaceable loss.

irish census records 1922 destroyed ucd archive

That is, until genealogists and historians determined two census substitutes for the destroyed 19th-century Irish census records:

  • Griffith’s Valuation – provides detailed information on where people lived from the 1840s through the 1860s.
  • Tithe Applotment Books – compiled between 1823 and 1838, they serve as a survey of land in each civil parish to determine the payment of religious tithes. Unlike Griffith’s Valuation they do not cover cities or towns.

I have already used Griffith’s Valuation to determine the exact place of origin of one branch of my family in County Mayo. The next step: Digging into the Tithe Applotment Books. These census substitutes can provide answers in the absence of official census records.

Ancestry Survey: Only 53% of Americans know all 4 grandparents’ names

This was a shock: An Ancestry survey of 2,113 Americans published in March found more than half (53%) can’t name all four grandparents.

What could be behind these numbers? Ancestry didn’t say. But looking at pre-COVID survey data from a better source, the Pew Research Center, provides some insights:

Pew family survey 2004In 1960, divorce was not common, and could even be forbidden by family pressure or religious authorities. Women were more likely to stay at home raising kids, and less likely to have careers, outside of a limited set of professions such as nursing and teaching.

But in the 1960s and 1970s, there was a huge social and family shift that continues today. As the number of “traditional” two-parent families declines – from 87% in 1960 to 69% in 2014 – there are tens of millions of Americans who grow up with one parent. We believe this explains why some children are less likely to know the grandparents from the other side of the family.

The Pew data had another chart that’s worth examining:

Pew family structure

In the Pew survey, “two parent” families can include two parents through remarriage, or other parenting arrangements. This means that some children may have more than four grandparents, including step-grandparents. Others may live with grandparents or other relatives, or may live in foster homes and not know any biological relatives.

Family is a complicated topic. Everyone’s family tree includes families that were not traditional, or involved separation, remarriage, adoption, or other special relationships. (We recognized this fact with the creation of some truly unique genealogy charts for adoptees and blended families).

It’s also important to recognize that while families today may not have the same structure of yesteryear, helping younger relations understand family history is a critical mission for any genealogist. Indeed, the Ancestry survey also mentioned that 66% percent of respondents they want to learn more about family history and over half (51%) want stories about when their ancestors were young and what life was like at a moment in time.

My project to design fillable genealogy PDFs with cursive fonts

I am working on an exciting project related to one of the most-requested features for EasyGenie fillable PDFs: cursive fonts.

Customers who have purchased EasyGenie fillable PDFs in the past know that the standard Helvetica font that appears when you type is easy to read and print. Here’s an example:fillable genealogy PDF helvetica fontBut some customers asked for something that looks nicer. Owing to limitations of the PDF file format and the Adobe software used to design fillable PDFs, it’s not possible for customers to change the font on their own, like you can do in Microsoft Word or Google Docs.

Further, there are design considerations for creating PDFs with special fonts, including:

  • Embedding new fonts leads to larger download sizes
  • Incompatibility with non-Adobe applications
  • Wider or taller characters can get cut off or limit the amount of typed input
  • Printing issues

Ian is working through these issues now, including evaluating new cursive and calligraphy fonts and printing tests. Here’s an example:

fillable genealogy PDF cursive

The sample above uses Monotype Corsiva in the large-print four-generation fillable pedigree chart. We hope to have something that customers can download in July from the EasyGenie genealogy PDF page.

Ancestry’s indexing experiment with firms in China

I follow genealogist Michele Lewis on TikTok. She recently found an unusual transcription from the 1820 Federal Census. Check out the handwritten first name. What does it look like to you?

ancestry index outsource to china

Now, I get it that a 200-year-old handwritten scrawl can be hard to read. But how could a transcriber even consider “Elizabether” in this case?

I think I know the answer. In 2008, I worked for an online technology publication, The Industry Standard (no longer online). I interviewed Tim Sullivan, CEO of The Generations Network, which was’s official corporate until 2009. The article was published on October 3, 2008, on the website of The Industry Standard (see image below).

In the interview, Sullivan noted that computers were “not even close” to being able to read handwritten records, especially those from disparate sources such as census records which have many different styles of handwriting.

So Ancestry turned to human transcriptionists. Paid transcriptionists, not volunteers like on FamilySearch. Sullivan told me:

“The vast majority of the investment we’ve made in the last 10 years is not in acquisitions costs or imaging costs, it’s in the indexing costs.”

At the time, Sullivan said Ancestry was paying $10 million per year to transcribe old records. To cut costs, Ancestry hired overseas partners in China where English was not widely spoken, but they can get census records transcribed for less money:

So how did The Generations Network import the data from millions of old census forms into its online database? Sullivan says the company spent about $75 million over 10 years to build its “content assets” including the census data, and much of that cost went into partnering with Chinese firms whose employees read the data and entered it into’s database. The Chinese staff are specially trained to read the cursive and other handwriting styles from digitized paper records and microfilm. The task is ongoing with other handwritten records, at a cost of approximately $10 million per year, he adds.

If you have ever tried to read old handwriting in an unfamiliar language, I am sure you can appreciate how difficult this task would be. But the lack of quality checks and nonsensical transcriptions is stunning. Keep in mind that Ancestry charges customers lots of money (up to 25% more as of January) but its main focus is generating profit for a string of private equity firms. Its current owner is a Wall Street PE firm, Blackstone Inc. It’s not clear if Ancestry still outsources its transcriptions to overseas firms, or if the OCR technology is good enough to hand off the task to computers.

Regardless, what’s especially frustrating is Ancestry customers have attempted to correct this particular error. The actual name is “Christopher Orr.” They’ve added the correct annotation multiple times, but Ancestry still shows the name from that 200-year-old census return as “Elizabether Orr.” Lots of people searching for this ancestor will never find him, thanks to Ancestry’s cost-cutting moves 15 years ago and lack of quality checks to correct such errors.

As Lewis notes at the end of her video, “Maybe you’re going to have the hand-search the indexes one at a time” to determine what the actual name is.

Archive of “Google stays mum on plans for public documents, points to OCR hurdle.” By Ian Lamont. Published 10/3/2008, The Industry Standard.

ancestry china outsource index transcription 2008


Using genealogy books to answer “why” questions about immigrant ancestors

Today I am writing about genealogy books. One of the holy grails for family historians is answering crucial “why” questions about ancestors and the decisions they made:

  • Why did the Pinnix branch of the family move from North Carolina to California?
  • Why did my great-great-grandmother Hanora have a different last name on her son’s marriage certificate?
  • Why did Jonathan Gould list a completely different occupation in the 1880 census?
  • Why didn’t Valeria Rodriguez have her parents’ names listed on her death certificate?

The list of such questions is endless. That said, unless you’re fortunate enough to contact a living relative who knows the details, or good documentation (such as a family letter or a newspaper account) it can be very difficult to find answers.

That’s why I pay very close attention to research published in genealogy books or by local genealogy societies about families or places that have some connection with our own family history. Such genealogy books are huge time-savers, as they let genealogists answer questions that would otherwise take untold hours to research.

genealogy and history books

I am reading one such book now – For the Grass of a Cow: Marion Tiernan’s Irish ancestors from County Meath to Saint Lawrence County, New York, 1820–1999.

The author, Charles M. Carletta, was seeking to answer “why” questions about his own ancestors, and share the answers with his family and descendants.

However, his research also touches topics of interest to anyone with 19th-century Irish immigrants and ancestors who settled in this remote area of northern New York. He addresses crucial “why” questions that apply to our own research:

  • Why was this area so sparsely settled compared to other parts of New York State?
  • Why did immigrants from a particular area of Ireland – County Meath – choose to settle here before 1830, even though it was a frontier wilderness?
  • Why did so many immigrants from Ireland land in Canada instead of New York City before the Famine?

The author’s easy-to-understand answers apply directly to two branches of my family. The book also answered some of the basic “why” questions above, including the one about occupations in the 1880 census (the author notes census enumerators in 1880 were professionals for the first time, and as a result got more accurate answers). Carletta, a retired professor, also included extensive footnotes listing specific shipping and land records, as well as other books and historical resources to follow up with.

Where can you find genealogy books and articles that relate to your own family’s ancestors? Amazon has some titles, but we’ve found that specialty publishers and genealogy societies have books and journal articles that can’t be found elsewhere. I have found some great genealogy books at the NEHGS bookstore.

I have also had luck with the local history rooms at town libraries, as well as small-town historical societies. If you’re planning a genealogy road trip this summer, make plans to visit these repositories!

Redesigning our Genealogy Kit for Kids to include fillable PDFs

Last month, my company redesigned the PDF edition of our popular Genealogy Kit for Kids using fillable PDF fields. This means kids and grandkids can type into the PDFs using the free Adobe Acrobat Reader app on a PC, Mac, or iPad, and print out the results.

Many family historians, ourselves included, were bitten by the genealogy bug when we were young. It often starts with simple questions:

  • Why do we have this last name?
  • Where was grandma born?
  • Why do we celebrate certain events?
  • Why do we eat special foods in our family?
  • How is this cousin related to us?

The Kids Genealogy Kit taps into this natural curiosity with interview sheets, simple ancestry charts, and maps to trace global origins. It really encourages children to talk with their parents, cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents in order to better understand family history, origins, and cultural traditions. For instance, it includes maps covering every inhabited country that kids can mark up with ancestors’ home regions, and includes interview sheets that children can use to talk with cousins, siblings, parents, aunts, uncles, and other relatives about family history and traditions.

These conversations is where some of the best learning experiences can take place, revealing stories and clues that can become the foundation of family history in the years to come. It also helps to build family bonds through personal conversations.Genealogy for Kids

When we officially unveiled the Genealogy Kit for Kids at the RootsTech conference in Salt Lake City a few years ago, we got a LOT of positive feedback. Some attendees liked the fact that it wasn’t yet another screen-based activity for children. A few educators were excited about the possibilities of including the kit in classroom activities.

Last year, the following review really touched us:

I bought this for my 12-year-old niece, who has recently begun asking questions about her heritage and family history. It has made a wonderful introduction to Genealogy, and a great guide to asking the important questions of their older relatives. This Kit has passed the time at family gatherings and on car trips. It has gotten everyone involved in collecting and recording a gold mine of family information, stories, and anecdotes.

However, this same reviewer also had a request: Would it be possible to make fillable PDFs so her daughter could type the information using her iPad on long car trips? It took some time, but the fillable PDF set is finally here. You can learn more about kids’ genealogy PDFs on the EasyGenie website.

Should diaries and other private papers be left to descendants?

We had a conversation recently about a book on Swedish Death Cleaning. It sounds morbid, but it got us talking about the types of papers we want to hand down to the next generation, which might be important to family historians and genealogists of the future. This ties into our family business, which designs and sells high-quality genealogy charts. for recording ancestry and family stories.

While we do not advocate saving papers of limited value (business records, financial statements, school reports) what about other types of documents, that may be considered core genealogy, like a diary?

1918 pandemic diary

Such documents could include personal letters, journals, or writings that reveal something of a person’s life or perspective. We had conflicting ideas about this:


What I wouldn’t give for a copy of my great-grandmother’s diary!


A journal is a very personal place for expressing random, rambling, and sometimes unsettled thoughts. It’s therapeutic – once you put it on paper, it makes you feel better. But I wouldn’t feel comfortable for people to look at my private thoughts.

She makes a great point. Privacy concerns extend to other types of documents, too. Would you want an old letter to an ex, written when you were 20 years old, preserved and shared with descendants? What about an angry letter, or a document detailing painful medical issues?

Famous authors sometimes request the executor to destroy private papers. Franz Kafka, Edward Albee, and others had specific instructions governing letters, manuscripts, and other documents.

Core genealogy documents for the next generation

Core genealogy documents for the next generation

We read an article a few days ago titled “How to Discover the Life-Affirming Comforts of ‘Death Cleaning’” Despite the morbid title, it’s a thoughtful discussion of cutting down clutter so your loved ones don’t have to later.

The article also got us talking about the types of papers and other documents we want to leave to our descendants … and those which should be trashed.

The company I founded is all about preserving and sharing core genealogy data, genealogy stories, and family photos on paper, which is the only proven long-term storage medium that’s relatively affordable and easy to use.

For instance, we have copies of a handwritten family tree and other notes written by great-grandmothers, cousins, aunts and uncles, some of which has survived close to 100 years. If they had computers in the 1930s, we doubt any of this would be available now, any more than we can easily read a floppy disk from the 1980s, a computer punch card from the 1960s, or a defunct online genealogy forum from twenty years ago.

But what about other types of information stored on paper that might be cluttering your basement right now? Consider the following:

  • Report cards
  • School assignments
  • Diplomas
  • Business records
  • Invitations
  • Holiday cards
  • Used notebooks
  • Bank statements
  • Tax returns
  • Property deeds

While there might be mild curiosity over these papers 100 or 200 years hence, such documents do not fall under the umbrella of “core genealogy.”

Unless there is something truly remarkable or special about an individual document in the list above, they should not be preserved or left for your loved ones to deal with. They are bulky. They are difficult to sort through. In some cases, these documents are redundant to information that will be readily available from other sources such as school yearbooks, business directories, or census returns.