GEDCOMs–understanding and working with them

Genealogists use GEDCOMs as a tool to transfer their files from one computer to another, and to backup their database in a compressed and simplified manner.  A GEDCOM is simply a computer file containing a ‘shorthand’ version of your information  that virtually all computers can read and understand.  In fact, you can read what is in your GEDCOM by opening it in your word processor (or text editor) and seeing what it says.  It isn’t the most interesting reading, but it is easily understood–and can be edited in your word processor as well.

Many years ago the LDS Church developed the GEDCOM. which has become the world standard for transferring genealogical data from one computer to another.  In fact, GEDCOM gets its name from “GEnealogical Data COMmunication”  and is used by all mainstream software developers today as the standard within the industry.

Perhaps the most important use of the GEDCOM is to transfer data from one computer to another.  The best part about this ability is that it can also transfer data from one operating system to another–meaning that if you use Windows or Vista (the Microsoft operating system) and a friend uses an Apple computer (Apple OSX operating system) or even UNIX , you can exchange data even though your computers “speak” different languages.

By creating and saving a copy of your GEDCOM you can easily store a backup of your data, in case your computer hard drive crashes or otherwise becomes corrupted.  If loaded onto a flash drive, or even a CD or floppy disk, it can act as an ‘insurance policy’ so all your work isn’t lost should something happen to your computer.  ALWAYS store your backup GEDCOM in a place away from your computer–so they both aren’t damaged or stolen at the same time.

And, as often happens, you discover a cousin across the world somewhere–say in England; you can create a GEDCOM of all or even a small portion of your database and email it to them.  They, in turn, can open it as a copy of your work–or import it into their database.  However, you should never import someone’s GEDCOM into your work without first opening separately to make certain it is what you are expecting; or that it is in the form that you prefer.  You will have to link the first name on the new data to one you already have to keep the family tree organized.

So, how do we create a GEDCOM?

If you are a PAF user, here are the steps.

  1. Open your PAF file that has the data you want to include in the gedcom file.
  2. Click on <FILE> to open a drop-down menu
  3. In the menu select  <EXPORT>
  4. A window will open–select the format to create the GEDCOM in (PAF 5, PAF 4, etc.)
  5. Then, select what information you want included in the GEDCOM you will create.
  6. When all selections are made, click on <EXPORT>
  7. Another window opens–requiring you to tell where to put this file when it is created, and what name it will be called.  Where it says “Save As” select a folder where the completed gedcom will be placed; and where it says “File Name” give the GEDCOM a name.  It is always best to include in the name the date, followed by the extension .ged
  8. When the information in step #7 has been entered, click on <ENTER>
  9. Your computer does it’s magic, and a little window pops up telling you how many people are in your GEDCOM, and how many families are included as well.
  10. You will find your GEDCOM at the location specified under “Save As” in step #7

Congratulations!!  You have successfully created a GEDCOM.

 If you are a LEGACY user:

  1. Open your LEGACY file that has the data you want to include in the gedcom file.
  2. MORE TO BE ADDED LATER
If you are a REUNION user:
  1. Open your REUNION file that has the data you want to include in the gedcom file.
  2. Click on <FILE> to open a drop-down menu
  3. Select <IMPORT/EXPORT> and then with your mouse select <EXPORT GEDCOM>
  4. In the box that opens, select ALL for your entire file, or MARKED PEOPLE for only certain individuals to be included.  Remember, you must first select those certain individuals by clicking their names in the Index first.  Change any other options at this time–such as “Include Sources” and so forth
  5. When information in the box has been selected as you want it to be, click EXPORT on the bottom right (blue icon)
  6. A new box opens where you first must give your new file a name so the computer can recognize it.  This is done in the text box called “save as.”  TIP!! It is always the best choice to include a date in the name, so you don’t accidentally open the wrong file in the future.
  7. In the same box, you then must tell the computer where you want the new GEDCOM file stored.  This is done below the naming text box in the open field.  Here you will select a folder to place your GEDCOM in–which could be your desktop, in your document folder, on a flash drive, or about anywhere else you may choose.
  8. After naming your file and telling your computer where to store this new GEDCOM file, click on <EXPORT> and then a little box opens showing the progress of the file as it is saved.
  9. When finished, your gedcom should be where you told your computer to put it.  Go there, using a mouse click or two, and look for the name you gave the file.
AND…that’s all there is to it.  After a couple of times of doing this you will see how easy and intuitive it is.  After you master the creation of a GEDCOM, come on back to this site and learn something else that you need a little help with.
                                               Happy Hunting!  (for your ancestors)

Identify Who’s in Those Old Photographs

Recently I obtained about 500 digital photos. scanned from originals taken by my grandparents on my mother’s side and my parents. Most were of good quality, with some dating back to the 1880′s and a genuine treasure for a genealogist who enjoys collecting photos, histories and stories about our ancestors.

But, a lesson has been learned worthy of passing on. Few of these photographs had anything that helped identify whose photo this was. Some were obvious, and yet others are great remembrances of people long since forgotten.

My mother was called in to help, and many copies of photos were sent to her. She wasn’t feeling well, and chose to put off reviewing them until she felt better. Unfortunately, she passed away before she could offer any help–removing a dwindling possibility of recognizing who some of these people really were.

Some of the best photos in these collections–most dating back to the 1920′s and 1930′s–had writing on the back that named individuals and locations. That really helps in putting these photos into perspective; but unfortunately only about 5% were so marked.

Of interest–I hear from a cinematographer cousin that we should not write on the backs of photos because it can distort the photographic paper and the photo image as well; but no distortion was apparent in this group of old photographs. What is distorting with respect to these images is that many are meaningless– other than for general interest–because we don’t know who these people were. Baby pictures of an 85 year old relative today are quite difficult to discern; and in most cases impossible.

I have learned a difficult and disappointing lesson, and the family genealogical history that I hope to leave for future generations will no doubt be left without its full richness because those that we wonder about can no longer be identified. I have identified Nick Glinnis as somebody’s cousin–but whose? I am almost certain that one of the four young men in the sailboat is Uncle Will, who died in 1926 by an accidental electrocution–but which one? And who was that lady holding my mother when she was about a year old? I really wonder.

Please make it your weekend project in the very near future to go through your family photos and identify who, where and why on those family photos. To soothe some feelings of guilt, obtain a small package of address labels and write or type the information on them–and attach the labels to the backs of the photographs.

One day, when you are long gone and your kids and grandkids decide to discover their roots; perhaps those people and events you felt were so important that you recorded their history can be shared and understood by those so dear to you.

Getting Started with Genealogy Research

For the beginning genealogist one of the most difficult–and most exciting–activities is developing the know-how to conduct good genealogical searches.  I recall vividly–some 27+ years ago–finding my grandfather in the 1891 census of Motherwell, Lanarkshire, Scotland.  I was thrilled, proud of myself, and excited to learn as much more as I could about his life.  Here are a few easy steps that will get you started; and hopefully give the same thrill and exhilaration that I experienced.

For the newbie, there are two good places to begin.  (1) Search for your family members on a ‘family tree’ site, and hopefully you can find someone that has done much of your preliminary research for you.  And, (2) start looking for census records that list your relatives.  The probability of finding a “hit” is very high on these types of websites: and they are the best way to begin.

I would recommend as your first objective a thorough search of RootsWeb family trees.  To do this, simply type into your web browser  Rootsweb.com    followed by a <RETURN>.  Because Rootsweb is a free site, you have to sift through a lot of advertising, but look for a place to type in your relatives Given name–which is the “first” name, followed by the Surname.  Several advertisers seem to always have their search boxes  available, so look toward the bottom to find the Rootsweb insertion point.

After you type in the names, hit <SEARCH> and hopefully in a second or two you will have a list of many potential “hits.”   Notice that one of the first columns across the page will show the names of spouses or parents.  This is one way to skim quickly through the list.  When someone looks promising, double click on the name and the listing will open, complete with the information available from that one family tree.

If you have many hits, you may want to scroll down to the very bottom to the ‘advanced search’ area.  Here you can enter more information, that hopefully will shorten your list, and zero in on your relative.  Be wary, however of inserting too much information.  Sometimes that doesn’t work very well.  I would suggest you add one fact at a time, then perform a new search.  After a little refinement, I’ll bet you find one of those long lost cousins.

When performing a search, don’t get discouraged.  Like anything new, it takes a while to figure out what works best.  To be good at anything, it takes practice. And practice.  And more practice.  In just a few days you will be whizzing around Rootsweb like a pro–finding cousins under every stone.

Newbies tend to take the information found on these sites as the Gospel.  Don’t fall into that trap.  Many genealogists out there are more interested in quantity than quality; and once you find a tree that fits your family remember this is just a start.  A good genealogist will then start working on these names to verify authenticity and provide source documentation.  For genealogy purposes, an internet family tree is not proof of anything.  But it does give you a place to start; and people to start with.

Our next search is for a census enumeration, which hopefully will show your ancestors family, age, occupation, place of birth, spouse, children, and even month of birth and sometimes parents names.  But, census enumerations are not known for accuracy either–and therefore are not what genealogists call”primary” sources either.  But, they are a great place to start, and if you compile 2 or 3 or 4 census records that all show the same information–it would be a pretty strong bet that the information is accurate.  Let’s give it a try.

Go to www.censusfinder.com.   Under US Census Records, select a state to begin your search.  Look through the list and select the broadest search criteria, then click on it to give it a try.  After a little work, and a little luck, you should turn up one of those cousins you found earlier on Rootsweb.com.

There are many good places to find census returns.  Ancestry.com is probably the best; but it is not a free site.  Another excellent site for census returns, periodicals and books is Heritage Quest.  You need to obtain a password from your local pubic library to use this; and it will be easier to use quickly if you simply ask someone to show you how it works after getting your password.  One shortcoming of HQ though is the fact that they have only indexed the HEADS of households.  Wives and children do not show up in their searches–but do show up on the scans of the original documents.

I would focus on these two websites for a day or two–as much can be found on them and they are very representative of other sites out there.  Master these, and you can handle anything.

Finally, I must add that Newbies want names, and lots of them.  So go for it!  But at some point down the road you are going to want to take notes, identify sources, and better document your work.  You will save a lot of time if you take some notes now.  You won’t heed this advice, but six months from now–when you are trying to figure out where cousin Henry was born, you will remember this admonition and finally agree that I was right.

Dig into it.  Enjoy yourselves. Find lots of cousins.  I think that’s what I’ll do this afternoon too.

How to–write names, dates and places

NAMES

Entering personal names into a genealogy software database is simple–as most provide individual points of entry for the given (first) name, middle name, and surname (last name). Where a location for a middle name is not available, they can be inserted right after the given (first) name–using a space between them. Some software automatically converts the surname into all capital letters; while most allow a choice of “as typed” or “all capitals.” Aliases and nicknames are usually inserted after the given (first) name, and generally have quotation marks surrounding them.

DATES

When typing dates into genealogy databases (software programs), there really is no choice other than to follow the strict genealogists protocol. Many individuals are more comfortable entering dates in some other fashion; but they cause confusion and lead to many errors. And, many software applications will not accept them without change. Dates should be entered in the standard format of first showing the day of the month, followed by a three-letter abbreviation for the month, followed by the year fully listed. An example would be 12 Aug 1942

PLACES

The genealogical convention is for locations to be listed in the following way:

City or township, County, State, Country

There are four fields in which information must be inserted, and each MUST be separated by a comma. If you do not know the city, or county, then the commas are still added but no writing falls within the commas.

Detroit, Wayne, Michigan, USA is the correct way to write a place. When the county is not known. it should be listed in the following manner:

Detroit, , Michigan, USA

Other missing information should be handled similarly.

Foreign countries sometimes get a little confusing, but generally follow the same pattern. Sometimes a 5th field is used in foreign countries due to town naming patterns; and sometimes in the United States the census enumeration district is shown similarly–usually preceding the city or town.

Beginning genealogists invariably have difficulty with county names; and for that reason it may be prudent to use the word ‘County’ immediately after the name of the county to aid in understanding. Sloppy genealogical work abounds on the internet, with the biggest offender being that of missing or incorrect county names; or inserting city names where county is requested. If you choose to use the word ‘County’ after the county name, and you intend to run the names through the LDS Temple Ready program, the word ‘County’ will have to be removed at that time. (But I still think it will be helpful to begin your work in this manner.)