google-site-verification: google65e716d80989ba07.html The Armchair Genealogist

Lessons Learned from Photographing 1000 Tombstones

Recently, I participated in a photo shoot at my local cemetery. The Norfolk Historical Society, for which I am a board member and volunteer, has taken on the task of photographing Oakwood Cemetery in Simcoe, Ontario. This is the largest cemetery in the county and contains over 14,000 graves.  My share of the project was section C --- 1000 graves.

Photographing this many tombstones in the span of about 3 weeks taught me a great deal about tombstones and cemeteries in general.  Here’s a few lessons, I learned, maybe they’ll help you next time you’re searching for an ancestor in a cemetery or photographing your family graves.

Check the Cemetery Records
There were a lot of missing stones, which the cemetery records provided names for. Just because you can't find a tombstone does not mean they aren't in the cemetery. Many were buried without a stone or final engraving. Check the cemetery records.

Don’t Trust the Cemetery Records
Cemeteries are run by people, often many people over the course of many years. People make mistakes and sometimes did not anticipate the size the cemetery would become 150 years later. I recommend you do not to completely trust the cemetery records for two reasons.

1.     Not everyone is where they are supposed to be. I recommend walking a least 3 rows on either side of where your ancestor’s grave is expected.  If the section is not too big, walk the entire section. 

2.    There were many people buried in the cemetery who were not on the list given to us by the county. Yup, not recorded. If you’re pretty sure your ancestor was buried in a particular cemetery, walk the cemetery even though the cemetery people are telling you differently. Of the 1000 tombstones I photographed, I found 20 graves not recorded in the cemetery records. I know many of my fellow volunteers were finding the same. 

Tombstones Offer More than Names and Dates
Sometimes a lot more information can be found on the tombstone than can found in the cemetery records. For example other family members, maiden names, causes of death, places of death, places of birth. Even interesting life milestones engraved on tombstones, like "first lady driver in the county." 

Go Gentle when Cleaning Tombstones
There have been plenty of articles written about the various methods to clean and read tombstones. You don’t need much more than a spray bottle of water and a soft brush to clean tombstones. Most became legible with a little spray of water and a soft brush.  I cleaned many tombstones that were unreadable when I started and were completely legible when I was done. Brush and water, nothing fancier or harsher required.

Go Prepared and Organized
Save yourself a lot of work by gathering all your tools in a handy carry-all. Here’s what I carried with me.   
Bug spray
Gardening gloves,
Gardening shears
Soft brush
Spray bottle of water
Extra battery for camera
Paper towels
Clear baggie to cover camera if it’s a little drizzly out
Bottle of water to keep hydrated
Protein bar to keep you going when you’re feeling peckish.
Soft cloth to clean camera
Notepad and pencil

Don’t Wait for the Perfect Sunny Day
Overcast day, chance of rain, don’t let that discourage you from photographing. Cloudy days were in fact the best days, no sun to deal with casting shadows on your stones. You also get a little less warn out without the sun beating down on you. I found the best times to photograph were early in the day or around 4pm in the evening, sun was not intense, temperatures were a little cooler.

Be Respectful
I did have to forego one day, because there was an interment in my section. Be respectful of funerals and those who have come to the cemetery to grieve.  If you’re from out of town, go for a coffee or lunch until the funeral is over and everyone has cleared.

Review Your Pictures at Your Earliest Convenience
If you live a distance away, review your pictures before you leave the cemetery, make sure you can read the stones, check to make sure you haven’t cast a shadow of yourself over the stone, and that the stone is in focus and readable.  I did about 150-200 photos per session, so I reviewed them later at home and went back to re-shoot a few that didn’t turn out as expected.

Check with your local archives and see if they are conducting a cemetery project in your area and volunteer. I learned a great deal about photographing tombstones. It improved by photography skills by virtue of volume alone, but more importantly, I learned a lot about the past residents of my county and I gleamed a few stories that I just may have to write. 

This project was done with the permission of the county that operates and maintains the cemetery. They shared their lists with us; in exchange we will share our pictures with them.

Do you have any added advice for photographing tombstones? 

Free Ebook - How to Use Evernote for Writing and Research

I'm a  big fan of Evernote for genealogy and writing. It's part of my work flow for writing family history books that you learn about in my ebook Getting Ready to Write. Over the weekend, I learned about this free ebook and thought many of you would be interested. Don't wait, I don't know how long it will be free.

Sorry, the author has changed this ebook back to $2.99 since posting. 

What You'll Learn In How to Use Evernote for Writing and Research: Tools for Today 

  • how to set up your account
  • downloading Evernote for your mobile device or desktop
  • syncing between devices
  • setting up Folders and Notes
  • the value of tagging
  • how to be an Evernote power searcher
  • setting up research notebooks
  • mobile Evernote
  • Evernote apps
  • how to collect digital content
  • how to use Skitch - the free Evernote mark-up app
  • tagging geolocations
  • how to use Evernote with the iPhone's Siri
  • free ways to store tweets, Facebook posts and more to Evernote

The author Nancy L. Hendrickson is also a genealogist and has written many genealogy articles and a few genealogy based books so she has first-hand experience applying it to research and writing. 

10 Free Genealogy Downloads

I’ve compiled a list of various eBooks and software downloads from across the web that are free and aimed to help you with your family history research. Most require an email address sign-up in exchange for the free information.

     1. Family Tree Tips, 23 Secrets to Organize Your Genealogy  by Family Tree Magazine
This guide provided tips for organizing your family history. It offers space-saving ideas, organization habits, sample filing systems and ideas for how to arrange your genealogy workspace. Also included is a research calendar form a biographical outline.

2. 48 tips by Family Tree University
This eBook contains information to help you use the popular website It includes an exclusive excerpt from the Unofficial Guide to by Nancy Hendrickson.

This guide offers tips on basic surname research strategies, tips for seeking ancestral maiden names, what your surname reveals about your ethnic heritage, how to refine Google surname searches, and what you can learn by understanding surname meanings.

4.  Sharing Your Family Tree by Thomas Jay Kemp on Family Tree Magazine
 This download will show you how to communicate your genealogy findings with the rest of your family. It provides the basic tools needed to share and distribute your family history research online.

5.  Legacy Tree Software, Standard Edition  by Legacy Family Tree - Legacy is a family history computer program for storing your genealogical information. This is the standard edition; there is a paid deluxe edition also available

Family Tree Builder is a family history program intended to help you store your genealogical information. It is free and offers a premium version. 

7. The Complete Guide to the Family History Interview  by The Armchair Genealogist
This guide will help you set the stage for a successful family history interview. Filled with over 100 questions this guide offers suggestions for handling a variety of interviews styles.

8.Family History: A New Start by Robin Foster at Saving Stories
In this free eBook you receive advice on how to manage the time you spend on family history research. You will also learn how to find resources to identify missing information, make your family history available instantly for all your relatives and make sure you are not overlooking helpful information right within your reach. 

9. RootsMagic Essentials by Rootsmagic
A free software download, this program offers the core features of their award-winning paid family tree software.

10. My Time Machine Children’s Activity Book by Family Chartmasters.
This is a free 35 page activity book to help children record their childhood.

And...shortly after posting this I discovered one more to add to the list. Brought to my attention through Randy Seaver's Genea-Musings blog. Randy shared a pdf download from Social Media Genealogy, Historical/Genealogicial Society Groups on Facebook. Wow! This is an impressive list. 

Do you know of another free software or eBook download to help family historians with their research?  Feel free to share it in the comments below. 

20 Apps for the Family History Traveler

There is still plenty of time left for summer travels, or perhaps you prefer the cooler months, in the
fall, when the air is cooler and the kids have returned to school. Regardless of when your next adventure is booked, be sure to check out our list of travel apps for the family history traveler. Now I’m not implying you need 20 apps to travel but there are a few options in each category depending on your needs. Apps should make life easier and take some of the stress out of traveling. Here’s 20 I think can definitely help the family history traveler.

Take Your Research with You – A family history travelers first priority is to the research. It’s important to be able to carry our research with us. Gone are the days of lugging books and binders. There’s an app for that, actually several apps that can make this happen.

1. –powered by the leading family history website, this app allows you to keep your ancestors close and their information closer. Here’s my personal experience with the app.

2. RootsMagic –my favourite family history software has an app. If you store your family history research in this popular program you can conveniently carry your genealogy with you on your Android or iOS device which includes iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch, all for free.

3. My Heritage- also offers an on-the-go version of their popular family history website. You can view and edit your tree, add people and search the My Heritage website. My Heritage supports 32 languages.

4. Evernote – I turned my Evernote app into a travel app, carrying my research checklist and all necessary information specific to each research trip. If your current family history software doesn’t provide an app consider Evernote. Read about how I turned Evernote in my personal travel app.

Capturing Research During Your Trip – A big part of a family history trip is securing new information. The right app can make it so much easier to not only record but keep organized as you move through your research trip.

5. My Interview for recording interviews on your iPad. Whether it’s with a local historian in an archives or a family member interview, this app will make your life incredibly simple. Allows you to upload multiple question templates, take notes during and after the interview.

(Not counting this one, since I’m using it twice, but it’s that good.)

Evernote – Not only can you bring your research with you but save new research as well. Evernote is perfect for saving your hand-written notes, pictures of documents, artifacts or pages out of books. I take pictures of pages, notes, artifacts, signs, you name it, I grab a photo of it and save it right to my designated file that I created before I left home. You can also make notes right in the app or on paper and then capture it in a photo to Evernote.

6. History pin – This app allows you stand in the streets of your ancestral hometown and link your personal family history and photos to a larger story and pin it to Google Maps. You can overlay a historical image with a modern view to create a historical comparison. It allows us to answer the question what was here before? What did our ancestral world look like and what remains that you can connect to today. Currently Historypin houses over 100,000 pins, contributed by over 150 cultural heritage institutions and tens of thousands of individuals.

7. It happened here - brings a city's past to life by providing descriptions of the most interesting events that have taken place at or near a user's location. The initial cities offered are New York, NY, Los Angeles, CA, San Francisco, CA, Boston, MA, Chicago, IL, Philadelphia, PA, New Orleans, LA, London, UK, Washington, DC and Dallas, TX. These events are manually researched and written by the company so there is no user-generated content on this app.

8. Field Trip App - is from Google and runs in the background on your phone. When you get close to something interesting, it pops up a card with details about the location. No click is required. If you have a headset or Bluetooth connected, it can read the info to you. Field Trip can help you learn about everything from local history to the latest and best places to shop and eat.

Maps and Travel Guides – are an essential part of travel, but paper maps, really? Not with these great solutions. All work offline so you don’t need to rely on expensive roaming and data fees. No more getting lost trying to find that cemetery.

9. Trip Advisor Offline City Maps – This free app provides maps with guides to restaurants, attractions hotel and reviews, all stored in the app so you can access them offline. You can follow self-guided tours created by experts, select a destination and the app will guide you using your phone GPS.

10. City Guides Offline Maps – produced by the folks at This free iPhone app allows to find your travel destination and create an itinerary for what you might want to see, do and eat. You can plan your trip from the app or from the website and import it into the app. As the name suggests it provides offline functionality including maps.

11. Museum Mobile - features thousands of the world’s biggest museums. Learn about what they house and current collections. Using your GPS the app will point you to the nearest museums in your area. Who knows where this one will take you? The downfall, only currently available for Windows Phone.

Organizing Your Trip- Getting out the door and sticking to a schedule can sometimes be stressful. These apps will help you pack, create an itinerary and move through the airport like a pro.

12. Gate Guru – can take the stress out of the airport. Gate Guru allows you to get familiar with an airport before you arrive. It keeps an eye on your flight, any changes or delays. Gate Guru finds restaurants, watering holes, washrooms and other services within the airport. You can also book a rental car with Avis through this app. Just for the fun of it, Gate Guru tracks your travel miles and airports visited. Gate Guru can help you navigate any airport you find yourself in.

13. Packing Pro –If you’re a list maker you’re going to love this app. Rated as one of the best travel apps it comes in a free option called Packing or the paid version Packing Pro. The Packing Pro looks like its well worth the couple of bucks especially if you’re packing for multiple people. Packing Pro creates customizable packing lists, with a variety of multi-item sections and categories, monitors a running tally of total items and the ability to check them off as you go. Print your list or email to friends and family, you can even add those last minute reminders like watering the plants. Only thing it doesn’t do is the actual packing. Too bad!

14. TripIt – organizes your travel life, everything from itineraries, reservations, numbers and schedules. You can forward travel-related email to your TripIt account; the app will create a calendar for you. The app also provides maps, weather forecasts and restaurant suggestions and attractions.

15. Passbook already on your iOS phone, this little app is completely under used by most travelers. Passbook provides you with a place to keep all your tickets handy. Everything from airline boarding passes, to concert and theatre tickets to movie ticket and sporting events. You can also keep reward cards organized in Passbook. As more and more businesses start using it you’re going to be able to carry fewer and few cards in your wallet.

Languages and Money – Traveling to your ancestral homeland is most likely going to find you confronted by a new language and currency. Here are a couple of apps that will make it a little bit easier.

16. iStone is designed for the iPhone, iPad and iTouch and offers more than 300 daily phrases in 12 different languages. You can add new phrases and recordings; it can be used offline, no Wi-Fi or data required. There is both a free and paid version.

17. Wikitude is in fact a browser. It uses the camera in your smartphone to view the neighbourhood you’re visiting and information will appear on the screen. It connects you with restaurant reviews from TripAdvisor and Yelp, along with photos and tweets about the same location, from friends in your social network. Another really cool thing. It doubles as a currency converter. Scan your bank note and the app converts it into multiple currencies.

Travel Safety – Traveling sometime meets with accidents. Here are a few apps to help you deal with those misadventures.

18. First Aid by American Red Cross- We have all encountered the occasional mishap while on vacation, from blisters, (should have broke in those shoes before you left) and sprains (tripping in the cemeteries) this app has you covered. Regardless of whether you are travelling or not this is just a great app to have. It’s available for free on Android and Apple.

19. bSafe - is a personal safety app. It’s built to help keep you secure on the road or at home. You set up a personal network of friends and family and it sends out notifications of your location using GPS. It you don’t arrive at a set destination the app will send out an alert to your network. It even has an alarm you can trigger that transmits a siren sound and records a video. Available for free on Android and Apple devices.

20. Travel Safe – Everyone knows 911 in Canada and U.S. for emergencies. But what would you dial in Paris, or London. The Travel Safe app features a list of emergency numbers for your location easily accessible on the home screen. The app will detect your location to access medical, fire and police number. No Wi-Fi required. You can also add a custom list of emergency contacts and personal information for emergency responders. Great value for .99 cents, and available for Apple or Android.

And here’s a bonus.

21. What’s a trip without sending a few postcards? But gone are the days of the cliché postcards. I always buy them but never get around to sending them, I’ve solved that problem with Postagram allows you to turn your photos into postcards that you mail right from your smartphone.

That’s my list, do you have an app you like to use for family history travel. I’d love to hear about in the comments.

Reviving Your Tired Family History Blog

Have you fallen out of love with your family history blog? Has it been awhile since you last wrote a
blog post? Are you ready to give up and walk away?

Thousands of family history blogs are living on the Internet today, with more coming to life daily. Unfortunately, many of these blogs become abandoned by their owners not long after they start.  Generally blogs become neglected because the author is bored and has lost interest, or they set themselves up for a blogging schedule they just can’t maintain long term, and the author faces burnout.

If you have one of those blogs or find yourself losing interest in your blog then today’s post is going to help you breathe new life into your tired family history blog.

First don’t beat yourself up if you’ve lost interest and abandoned your family history blogging efforts completely. It’s still not too late to revive a delinquent family history blog. If your blog never went through periods of renewal and rejuvenation, I would be worried.

How do you revive a family history blog?  Change! You’re bored and so are your readers, change is in order!

Allow Your Content to Evolve

As writers we are constantly mastering our skill. Writing is an evolving journey, and with that evolution comes new focus and perspective, new topics and maybe even a new audience. Don’t be afraid to let your writing and content evolve. There is nothing wrong with growing and expanding and changing the content of your blog. I’m a big advocate for change and growth. Staying stagnate makes for dull content. If you’re not obsessive about a topic, then it will be hard to express any kind of passion to your readers. They soon will be just as disinterested as you.  I’m constantly reading and learning not only within the genealogy and family history field but outside it as well.  Expanding my knowledge of new areas and skills, keeps my mind stimulated and the content flowing.

 Don’t fear change, it’s the fresh air you need to keep your blog exciting and new.

Consider Relaunching Your Blog

Relaunch your family history blog with a new focus and a new look. It just may be the change required for you and your readers.  A fresh look can increase traffic/subscribers and stimulate your passion for family history blogging again.

Here are a few approaches to relaunching your family history blog.

  1. Redesign your blog but keep the content the same, sometimes you just need a little redecorating to relight the passion, change up the colours, the fonts, pictures, try a new template, a new logo.
  2. Consider altering older content/deleting least relevant material and tweaking the rest.
  3. Relaunch your family history blog with a new look and completely new content – a major overall may be in order. Sometimes after blogging for a while you need to rethink your direction. All well known long-established companies face a rebranding from time to time to keep things current and relevant in the market-place, a blog is no different.
  4. Maybe a fresh start is in order with a new domain, new website design and redirect traffic so you don’t lose readership. Perhaps you’ve outgrown your current blogging platform and you feel limited, it might be time to tackle a new blogging platform that offers more options.
  5.  If your blog has gotten too big, with a lot of topics, it can get messy almost like a garden in need of some pruning. Focus your blog topics, separate the ideas into their own blogs, giving each topic a greater focus, dropping topics that are going nowhere and expanding the ones that get the most hits. This can help you build wider audience appeal.
  6. Invite other family members or fellow genealogists to blog alongside you, sharing the workload and giving your blog a fresh set of eyes and voice.  Having someone work alongside you can inspire and motivate you.

Keep in Mind

Traffic doesn’t happen overnight.  Promote on social media, list your blog in Geneabloggers and let the community know you exist.
Don’t get hung up on comments. A blog can function and thrive quite well without comments. These days many discussions about blog posts take place on Facebook. The true test is in your visitors.
Keep the content flowing on a regular schedule. It doesn’t have to be every day or even weekly. Pick a schedule you can manage and stick with it.

It’s never too late to revive an old tired family history blog, take a few minutes to examine your priorities, find a new focus and develop an action plan.