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A Week of Genealogy Webinars

They say things come in threes. This week brought me three interesting genealogy webinars on various topics.

An Overview of My Heritage by Del Ritchhart

During this presentation hosted by the Colorado Genealogical Society, local genealogist Del guided us through the powerful My Heritage website. We learned how to create a family tree and expand it using the genealogy discoveries that My Heritage finds and suggests. He explained how to upload DNA test results and make the most of all the matches we receive. He demonstrated the site’s photo colorization and animation feature. During the presentation, I created a To-Do list of features I want to try. First up, the consistency checker for family tree errors.

Building Family Trees for Your DNA Matches by Mary Eberle

Legacy Family Tree Webinars engaged the founder of the DNA Hunters consulting service to talk about a methodology for determining how an unknown DNA match may be related. I was happy to learn that I am doing something right. I use the same approach she suggests. I, too, work to build trees for unknown matches out to the great-great grandparents looking for a common ancestor. She also offered some helpful tips for identifying matches who use just initials or an alias or who have no tree posted on the testing site.

Basics of New England Research by Ann Lawthers

This webinar presented by American Ancestors and scheduled for later today anticipates the release of the sixth edition of Genealogist’s Handbook for New England Research. The class promises to cover the historical context and organization of New England records. It will offer strategies for successful New England research. I have not worked with New England sources beyond town records and the American Ancestors website, so I am eager to learn more. I have numerous New England ancestors who lived in Massachusetts from 1620-1831 left on my research list.

Having these webinars available for free from home helps me stay up to date on my research skills. I learn something new each time. The only problem is deciding where to begin.

A Mysterious DNA Match

For a long time, I have spent about one morning a week analyzing my dad’s DNA matches. I am looking to break through some brick walls in our family tree. Sometimes I have success, as I did when a DNA match identified a great-grandfather earlier this summer. More often, though, it seems I have difficulty establishing the relationship.

My effort this week met with little success. I tried to determine how we are related to a California woman who is predicted to be my father’s third cousin.

Third cousins share second great-grandparents, so I needed those names (16 in all) for the woman’s family. One of them should be our most recent common ancestor.

The woman had no family tree posted on the testing site, so I Googled her unusual name. I found her father’s 2008 obituary including her as a survivor. This information implied her maiden name.

Next, I looked at her father’s FindAGrave memorial. This gave me more of his family information and linked to her mother’s memorial.

With this much information, I could locate the family on the Family Search family tree. There I found the names of 12 of the woman’s 16 second great-grandparents. Nothing looked familiar.

That leaves one set of the woman’s great-grandparents whose own parents are unidentified and for whom I have only the paternal surnames. This family lived in Wisconsin. If they are part of my family, I cannot see how they fit with ours.

I am looking for families for three of my ancestors, none of whom ever resided in Wisconsin:

  1. John Davis Riddle (1821-1896). He was born in Pennsylvania, lived as a young man in Ohio, and migrated to Michigan.
  2. Daniel Sherman (abt. 1800-aft. 1863). He was born in New York and had arrived in Kentucky by 1821. He sold his land there in 1863 and disappeared from the record. His children were in Indiana and Illinois by 1870.
  3. Katherine Stillabower/Stilgenbauer (dates unknown). Her daughter (my great-grandmother) was born at Edinburgh, Indiana in 1865. We have no other information about Katherine. The greater Stillabower/Stilgenbauer family immigrated from Bavaria in the 1830’s and 1840’s and settled in Indiana.

The California DNA match does have ancestors in other lines who did live in Indiana, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, states where my brick wall ancestors also lived. Perhaps our connection lies in one of those branches, but she has no surnames in common with any of mine.

This DNA match will remain a mystery for now.

Genealogy Potpourri

Some weeks seem a little scattered in the home office. I engaged in several unrelated genealogy activities this week:

  1. My research papers on the Ryan family have taken on a life of their own. I spent my genealogy time yesterday sorting and organizing the mess. Now I am ready to move forward with some productive research.
  2. I have not attended the local Highlands Ranch Genealogical Society in-person programs that began this fall. They record their programs so members can listen later if they miss a meeting. I donned my headphones to hear the September program and hope to listen to the October program tonight.
  3. The Colorado Genealogical Society hosts Zoom classes on specialized topics once a month. I registered for an upcoming session on using the My Heritage online website.
  4. As I read the most recent journal of the Palatines to America organization yesterday, I found the information for next spring’s conference in Denver. I invited my half-German husband/tech advisor to go. We made a hotel reservation this morning. We are already looking forward to an immersion in German food, genealogy, culture, and companionship.

As the weekend approaches, I have Ryan family papers to analyze, an interesting lecture to hear, and both a class and a conference to look forward to. Not bad for a disjointed week.

A Young Woman with Many Footprints

Common wisdom states that genealogical research comes more easily for male ancestors than for female ones. I often find the opposite to be true in my family.

One example is my Irish ancestral couple, Daniel Ryan (1829-1863) and Jane Lawless (abt. 1829-1853), who resided in Illinois. I have found much more information about her and her family than I have located for his. I believe other researchers have encountered the same difficulties with Daniel because online family trees commingle him with another Daniel who lived in New York.

Everyone seems to have difficulty with him, yet Jane has been easy to find. Although she lived a short life, I have several records for her:

  1. Arriving New York passenger list for the Home on 1 May 1849. Jane and her family travelled in steerage from Ireland.
  2. 1850 U. S. census for Peoria, Illinois. Jane resided in the Thomas Lawless household with perhaps 10 siblings. Two other Lawless families appeared on the same page.
  3. 1851 marriage record for Jane Lawless and Daniel Ryan in Peoria, Illinois. They married 15 June 1851 in the Catholic Church.
  4. 1852 baptism record for her son Richard in Kickapoo, Peoria County, Illinois.
  5. Death in 1853. I have not located a death or burial record for Jane, but an affidavit in a Civil War pension application file states that she died at Bloomington, Illinois in 1853.

These records will provide ample fodder to learn much more about Jane and her family. All her siblings would have left tracks in Illinois and elsewhere.

Once again, the female in my family becomes the easier one to document.

One Man or Two?

Daniel Ryan (1829-1863) is proving to be a difficult ancestor to trace. Most information I have collected about him indicates that he lived in various counties in Illinois. But there was a Daniel Ryan the same age who lived in Clinton County, New York. Many online trees have the IL and NY information compiled into a single profile.

Were they the same man? As I gather more information, I find that I doubt it.

I know this about my ancestor:

  1. He was born in Ireland in 1828 or 1829.
  2. He married Jane Lawless in Peoria, IL in 1851.
  3. He had a son Richard born in 1852.
  4. Jane died in 1853, and Daniel married Bridget Murphy in Springfield, IL in 1854.
  5. He had a son James born in 1855.
  6. He enlisted in the Union Army in Illinois in 1861.
  7. As a soldier, he died from disease at New Orleans in 1863.
  8. His widow Bridget collected a Civil War widow’s pension.

I have collected only a little information so far on the Daniel Ryan who lived in New York:

  1. In 1850 he lived with his parents in Au Sable, Clinton County, NY and worked in the coaling industry.
  2. In 1860 he was still living in New York, working as a miner, with a wife Margaret.

Merging these two men, as so many online trees have done, strains my credibility:

  1. Daniel would have needed to travel from Au Sable (near the Vermont/Canada border in NY) to Springfield and back more than once between 1850 and 1860. During this period, he would have married three times.
  2. My Daniel Ryan’s widow Bridget was married to him from 1854 until his death in 1863. She lived in Illinois. Unless he was a bigamist, the same man could not have been married to Margaret and living in New York in 1860.

So why is everyone pulling all this information into the life story of one man? I think I know. I have not found my Daniel Ryan on either the 1850 or the 1860 U. S. census. It would be easy to assume the New York man is him because that is the only record that emerges in a census search for Daniel Ryan in those years. But the facts do not support this conclusion.

The evidence seems to be pointing to separate identities for the Daniel Ryan who lived in Illinois and the one who lived in New York.





Genealogical Jackpot

Genealogists keep an ancestor’s age in mind when looking for records. A standard question is whether a man was eligible to have served in one of our nation’s wars. If so, did he apply for a pension?

Pension application files can be rich sources of genealogical information. People wanted those pensions. They provided every document they could to strengthen their case. The government saved it all.

I had never been lucky enough to find one of these for any of my family members, until now. Last week I located an application filed by Bridget Ryan, widow of my second great-grandfather Daniel Ryan (1829-1863).

Daniel enlisted for a three-year term of service in the Union Army from Illinois in 1861. He died in Louisiana two years later from disease.

The Fold 3 subscription database has digitized copies of Civil War pension applications, and I was able to find Bridget’s. It is 76 pages long, due to some controversy.

The packet is chock-full of interesting documents:

  1. Certificates for Daniel’s marriages to each of his two wives.
  2. Catholic priest affidavits attesting to the baptisms of Daniel’s sons with each of the wives.
  3. Verification of Daniel’s military service from the U. S. Adjutant General office.
  4. Verification of Daniel’s death from the U. S. Surgeon General office.
  5. Guardianship information for the first son.
  6. Paperwork from the first son contesting the right of the widow and second son to receive a pension.
  7. Place of residence for the widow and the first son.

It would have taken a long time to collect these documents individually. Finding all of them in one convenient place saved me a lot of time.

Daniel suffered an untimely death during the Civil War. He left behind a tangled family life. The pension application based on his service gave this descendant a means to begin unraveling it.

The 1840 U.S. Census Revisited

Except for my Brick Wall ancestors, I thought I had completed all the U. S. census work on my family. Then I read an article by Kathy Petlewski, MSLS, in the NGS Magazine and found that I had overlooked something in the 1840 U.S. census.

This was the last census that listed only heads of household by name. Everyone else was represented with just a tick mark. Yet, unbeknownst to me until now, this census record had a second page. In 1840 the federal government collected information about veterans, military pensioners, and their dependents.

It listed the name of anyone in the household who was receiving a pension regardless of whether that person was the head of household or not. How did I miss this? Was any military information recorded for my family?

Some of my paternal ancestors lived in the United States in 1840, so I decided to take a look at these third and fourth great-grandparents:

  1. Thomas Reed (1783-1852) lived at Ashmore, Illinois. No pensioners resided in this household. Thomas’ son Caleb (1818-1903), my ancestor, lived with him in 1840 and was represented by a tick mark.
  2. John Carter (1790-1841) also lived at Ashmore. He was not a veteran, either.
  3. Rhoda Hall Dunbar (1784-1850) was a widow in Stow, Ohio by 1840. Her husband and my ancestor Benjamin E. Dunbar was a veteran of the War of 1812 but had died in 1831. His militia service lasted only 3 days, and Rhoda was not receiving a widow’s pension.
  4. Gershom Hall (1760-1844) was Rhoda’s father and a Revolutionary War veteran living in Harwich, Massachusetts. He was not receiving a pension.

I have been unable to locate some of my Brick Wall ancestors on the 1840 U.S. census:

  1. Daniel Sherman (abt. 1800-bef. 1870). He resided mostly in Kentucky, but two of his children, Eliza (b. abt. 1838) and Thomas (my ancestor b. 1841) were reportedly born somewhere in Ohio. The only Daniel Sherman family I have found on the 1840 census for Ohio does not perfectly match my Sherman family. No one there was receiving a pension.
  2. John Davis Riddle (1821-1896). He may have been living in Ohio in 1840, but I have not found a census record for him. Perhaps he was still a tick mark. I do not know the names of his parents nor whether they were living in 1840.

My dad’s remaining ancestral families, the Ryans and Stilgenbauers, arrived in the United States after 1840. My mother’s Scandinavian family did not immigrate until the 20th century. No use looking for any of them on the 1840 census.

I thought I was on to something when I learned about page 2 of the 1840 census records. Unfortunately, no one in my family made the list.

Help Is at Hand

During the pandemic we have needed to do most of our genealogical research from home. When online databases contain the records we need, all goes well. When those records are digitized but locked and inaccessible from a home computer, things do not go so well.

Family Search has many agreements whereby a researcher can look at a record only from a computer at a Family History Center. Yet these Centers have been closed for months.

I experienced the problem again when I needed the marriage record for Richard Ryan and Catherine Shea who were married in Illinois in 1879. Family Search has abstracted the record, but the image of the record was locked. Every genealogist knows it is better to look at the image of a record than an abstract of it.

I wondered whether to write to the county for this record when I remembered hearing that Family Search has instituted a free lookup service for those records we cannot view from home. I decided to try it.

Using an online request form (, I filled in as many of the fields as I could. One line asked for the image number, but how would I know that when I cannot search the Illinois marriage images? I left that line blank. For all the other fields, I provided as much information as I could to make sure the researcher could zero in on the correct record.

Once I submitted the form, I received a message saying I would receive a reply within two weeks.

Imagine my surprise when I opened my e-mail the next morning. There was a message from Family Search with the requested record attached. Not just the marriage record, but also the marriage license and an affidavit confirming the parties’ eligibility to be married. I also received the researcher’s notes. That’s what I call service.

I am delighted that Family Search has come up with a way for us to gain access to a closed record. The marriage return in this case contained the signatures of Richard Ryan and Catherine Shea.

Now I can compare Richard’s signature found here to the one on his homestead application to make sure I have the right man. No abstract of a record would allow me to do this.

Until the Family History Centers fully reopen, we are fortunate that Family Search is offering this outstanding service.


A New Branch of the Tree

A genealogical discovery upended my research plan for the summer. This month a couple of DNA tests revealed the identity of my previously unknown great-grandfather.

Of course, I dropped everything else to do some research on him. He lived much of his life in the 20th century and left many records:

  1. U. S. census. I found him for every decennial, but his first appearance, in 1860, was not straightforward. He lived with his maternal grandfather that year and was listed with that surname, not his own.
  2. Newspapers. My ancestor homesteaded in Hayes County, Nebraska. The local papers have been digitized and are available on His name appears several times when he bought or sold land and engaged in political activities. He had on obituary which says nothing about my grandmother.
  3. Land records. This man long was a candidate for my great-grandfather because he had legal dealings with my great-grandmother, Laura Riddle (1853-1933). He served as a witness for her homestead application, and he bought land from her. He lived next door.
  4. This website links my ancestor to other members of his family. This gives me a roadmap to follow in searching for primary sources about him and his parents.

My next step is to follow up on those clues and locate some original records. This week I submitted to the State of Nebraska an application for my ancestor’s 1925 death certificate. I hope it includes the names of his parents to confirm the information on posted on FindAGrave.

The newspaper carried a notice of petition for probate of his estate, so I will contact Hayes County for a copy of that file. As far as I know, he never acknowledged or supported my grandmother as his daughter, but I will not know for sure until I look at his probate case to see if it mentions her.

My ancestor had a homestead, and I need to request a copy of his file. Did my great-grandmother reciprocate by serving as a witness for him? Were women allowed to do that in the 1890’s?

All this leaves me with a big unanswered question. Should I contact my ancestor’s other descendants, the half cousins whose DNA we match? They may not know that we even exist. Have they looked at their match lists and wondered who we are and how we are related?

This out-of-wedlock event took place in 1895-96, a long time ago. Perhaps enough time has passed for the shock such news creates to be softened.

I would love to know whether my grandmother looked like her father’s family. I long to ask them for a copy of a photo of him if they have one. I was thrilled to find a portrait of my dad’s half-cousin posted on his FindAGrave site, and I thought I could see a family resemblance between him and some of my grandmother’s children.

My newly found ancestor holds the key to 12.5% of my heritage. Filling in this blank space on my family tree is so satisfying.

Re-living My Childhood

Last week my husband/tech advisor and I took a vacation to the Black Hills of South Dakota. We stayed in a cabin in Custer State Park. I had not been to that region in a couple of decades.

The area just north of there used to be familiar territory for me because my grandparents lived in Rapid City. My parents were married there, and I was baptized there. My family spent a week or two there most summers.

We would take in all the local sites during those visits—Mt. Rushmore, Storybook Island, Reptile Gardens, Dinosaur Park, Canyon Lake, and Keystone. I took my first and only helicopter ride when I was a young teenager.

On this trip we stayed in the Custer area, not Rapid City. We drove all around the park and saw bison, wild turkeys and donkeys, deer, vultures, and a coyote. One day we hiked around Sylvan Lake. Another day we looked at the stockade on French Creek near where gold was discovered in 1874.

Visiting the Black Hills again brought back many good memories of childhood vacations. My family is all gone from that area now, so I do not get there often. I am glad I had the chance to visit that beautiful area again this year.