Genealogy Pet Peeves: Useless Sources

These two pet peeves are somewhat related, but they occur on different websites.

On FamilySearch, I see a lot of information added to the tree with the notation “GEDcom data.” What that means is that the contributor was working from a family tree that they or someone else built on a computer somewhere. It is NOT a source. A source is an original document or an index or even something that someone told you. My maternal grandmother Willie Stevens Cook, or maybe my mom, told me that Willie’s birthday was January 13, 1909. The source would be personal knowledge. I have a photo of a page from Willie’s mother’s Bible listing that date. I could cite the Bible, which is in the possession of my cousin. I could attach a copy of her birth certificate, which says January 14th, and explain all the reasons why it’s January 13th everywhere else. I shouldn’t say, “GEDcom data.”

In my mind, GEDcom data is the equivalent of saying, “They say….” Like, they say wearing a tinfoil hat will protect you from mind control. Who is they? What evidence do they have that tinfoil can block communication waves? And is tinfoil the same as aluminum foil?

The other pet peeve I have in mind today is found on Ancestry, and it’s a situation that Ancestry has created for some unknown reason. It happens when Ancestry offers a hint about a relative on your tree. Sometimes the hints are actual documents in a collection of historical records. Other times, they’re just pointing out that another family tree has information that might relate to your family. They give you (if you are a paid member) a button to add that information to your family tree. Ancestry does nothing to verify that the information is correct or relevant to your family. If someone else comes along and looks at your family tree, and they look at the sources, they’ll see the tantalizing words “Ancestry Family Tree.” If you click any other source, such as a census record, Ancestry will show you the record. If you click on “Ancestry Family Tree,” you basically get a link to the Ancestry website. I mean, it should at least give you the name of the family tree the person copied and either the date the tree was created or the date the information was copied. If the tree has been deleted, it should say that. With all their algorithms, the system should be able to notified everyone who copied the information if it is later changed or corrected.

If you are building a family tree, please put where you got the information. If you find something on someone else’s family tree online, make a note of whose tree it’s on, and then try to find actual evidence, such as a vital record, a will, a census page. Include that information on the profile, either by attaching a link to the record or leaving a detailed note that will help other family members verify the data. If you’re uploading or copying a GEDcom file, include a note about who created the file and when. Did that person list any sources?

Never assume that anyone else’s work is correct. Review their sources or find your own and cite them. Otherwise, you may as well just be making it all up.

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#52Ancestors in 52 Weeks: Gratitude

I am thankful for a lot of things this Thanksgiving week, but this is a genealogy post, so I’m going to focus on that side of my life.

I’m grateful for….

The many online resources that those aforementioned cousins didn’t have access to when they started their research decades ago. FamilySearch. Reclaim the Records. State archives. Library and university archives. Digital books. Special thanks to the employees and volunteers who spent hours and hours and hours creating searchable indexes.

Having DNA samples from my great-aunt and uncle who have since passed on, as well as my mom and her brothers (and on my husband’s side, my mother-in-law). Having a sample from a generation or two further back is such a blessing when trying to figure out which side of the family one of my matches is on. Sometimes they match people I don’t. I am confident their donation of spit and cells will help me solve some family mysteries and break through brick walls.

Access to the Ancestry Library Edition at home. Yes, the coronavirus pandemic is dreadful, and I’m tired of it (as we all are), but the one joy I’ve gotten from it is being able to look stuff up on Ancestry from home at any hour of the day or night. This will not last forever, and believe me, I’d rather be rid of COVID, but for the time being I’m taking great pleasure in the research opportunity.

Never-ending online seminars and webinars. I’ve watched quite a few from the Florida State Genealogical Society and Family Tree Webinars. I’ve also enjoyed talks presented by the Southern California Genealogical Society and the Georgia Genealogical Society, and probably a few others. I’ve seen many presentations advertised that I cannot afford, but all the ones I’ve mentioned here will allow you to watch the event live for free, and FTW gives you up to a week to watch the recording. I have learned so much.

Kinfolk and cousins who’ve done exhaustive research and built accurate and documented trees before I ever got into the hobby. I stand on their shoulders as I strive to add additional sources and take us back another generation or two. In some cases, I found their work after I had done some of my own, and it allowed me to “validate” what I had done beyond simply reviewing the records.

Stories and memories from my mom. I’m so glad she’s still here at age 83, and that I’m able to share some of my genealogical findings with her. It’s amazing to look at old black and white photos with her and have her describe the colors and fabrics of her outfit. Of course, one of the many downsides of this pandemic is that I have a new (now 10 months old) digital recorder that I bought in order to record her stories, but I’ve been trying to reduce my time around her to protect her from potential exposure. There have been many times on the phone that I’ve opened a document and started typing her stories as she tells me. I just have to keep up. I definitely don’t want to lose all those memories when that terrible day comes that I lose her.

West Florida Genealogical Society president Virginia Shelby presents my mom and I with our certificates from the Florida State Genealogical Society's Pioneer Program.
West Florida Genealogical Society president Virginia Shelby presents my mom and I with our certificates from the Florida State Genealogical Society’s Pioneer Program.
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#52Ancestors in 52 Weeks: Good Deed

Me and my dad. Scan from a slide taken in 1966.
Me and My Dad, 1966.

I heard a story about my dad, Bill Hahn, at his funeral. I may not remember it exactly, but the idea of it remains strong in my mind. The minister, Mark Dees, recalled that, one day, he and my dad were working together on a project at Ensley United Methodist Church. A man, probably homeless, came up and asked for some help. Mark said my dad pulled out his wallet and handed the man a $20 bill. After the man left, Mark asked him about giving him that much money, when he might waste it on liquor or drugs. Daddy answered with something along the lines of, he couldn’t control how the man used it, but he could control how he responded to a need.

Years earlier, a young woman came up to the door of our home on Mason Lane in Pensacola. My parents were out of town; I was in college. This girl told me she worked at the day care down the street. Her mother was sick, she claimed, and she needed help to get to her. Could I loan her some money and she’d pay me back. I think I gave her around $25, and even gave her a ride. Of course, later I started thinking I’d been bilked, and I called the day care, and they told me they’d seen the same young woman. She told them she lived in the green house near the corner. My house. I called the sheriff’s office, but of course, I didn’t really have a good description of her, and I couldn’t even remember exactly where I dropped her off. I hadn’t been driving long, and it wasn’t an area I was familiar with, so there wasn’t much they could do. That was a lot of money for me back then, and I felt like an idiot. Now, I try to look at it through the lens of that story about my dad. I was responding to a need, even if the need was made up. Maybe that counts for something in the cosmic scheme of things.

This post was inspired by a prompt from genealogist Amy Johnson Crow’s 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks Challenge.

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#52Ancestors in 52 Weeks: Different Language (Postcards from Germany, Part 2)

I don’t remember when I first learned that one of my ancestors was from Germany. For a long time I would get confused as to whether it was my great-grandfather or my great-great grandfather. Now I know it was the latter. Anyway, that knowledge inspired me to take German for a couple of years in high school, so when some German-language documents came into my hands from my husband’s family, I figured transcribing them and translating them would be easy.

The first item was shown to me when I was newly married, nearly 30 (egad!) years ago. I had trouble reading the handwriting, so I didn’t get very far. Fast forward to 2019, and I ran into the same issue with some photo postcards sent to my husband’s grandmother from her family in München. At best, I could make out a word or two. I first wrote about these postcards in January 2020.

Postcard from Helen Schiessl's family in Germany.
Note on back of photo from the collection of Helen Schiessl Raney.

Helen Schiessl came to America from Germany in 1908, when she was 16 years old. She sailed on the S.S. Pretoria of the Hamburg-Amerika Line. I just this year found the genealogical connection to prove that this was our Helen, and not someone else of the same name. The document listed the address of an aunt, Mrs. Ursula Hartfeld. Just this year, I found Mrs. John Otto Hardfeld, born Ursula Brummer, living in Richmond, New York, as listed on that passenger document. Helen’s mother’s name was Teresa Brummer.

But I digress. This was supposed to be about the different language.

As I struggled with deciphering these German postcards, I had a chance to watch a couple of RootsTech panels on reading; I had purchased the online pass in 2018. (The whole thing is going to be online and completely free in 2021!) And I felt so relieved. Because it wasn’t me being stupid. The handwritten German language was very different back then. It was called Kurrentschrift. To the untrained eye, a lot of the letters look similar to each other, and some of them look like other English-language letters. The lower-case e for example, looks very like an n. And so does the c, kind of. And so does the u, except it has a little mark over it (a different mark than the umlaut, which still sometimes appears over the letters ü, ö, or ä).

Postcard sent to Helen Schiessl from her family in Germany.
Postcard from the collection of
Helen Schiessl Raney.

Understanding all this and having a little chart with the letters is still not helping me a whole lot. If I had a better grasp of the language. Those high school German classes were almost 40 (egad!) years ago. I literally have to go letter by letter and then look up the potential word and see if it is a word and if it’s not, try to figure out which letter (or letters) I got wrong. I have not gotten very far.

I did find some help on a forum, but I only posted a couple of the postcards. I felt like it was too much to post them all at once.

One of the notes I posted on that forum was on the back of a photo (below) of Helen’s mother, Theresa, and five of her sons, one of them in uniform. The translation said, in part, “I’m adding a photograph that I had made from my poor Bertl so that we can at least see him if he doesn’t come home from the war.” I believe Bertl is Norbert Schiessl; records show he died on January 3rd, 1915.

I don’t know if all of these postcards will have clues about who’s in the photo or other crucial family details. I have to delve into that different language to find out.

Photo of Theresa Brummer and five of her sons. Center back is Norbert Schiessl in uniform.
Photo colorized using the free feature on MyHeritage.

This post is one of a series inspired by genealogist Amy Johnson Crow’s 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks Challenge. The idea is to write something about your family at least once a week, and Amy puts out a prompt to help spark ideas. It’s free. There’s no pressure. It’s a great way to record genealogical discoveries and your own memories.

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#52Ancestors in 52 Weeks: Bearded

Sometimes things that we take for granted go by the wayside over time. They may even be banned or restricted.

I’m thinking of beards in the U.S. Navy.

Going back a bit, my two grandfathers, Hoyt Cook and Charlie Hahn, never wore facial hair. I think a couple of my dad’s brothers did off and on. I feel like most of the men that I knew didn’t grow beards.

Bill and Zenova Hahn at a Navy event in Scotland.

My dad, William Hahn, did have a beard sometimes. When he went off to sea for three or six months at a time, he would come back with a beard. From the time I was about four years old until I was in high school, he served aboard a submarine tender and three different submarines. As I grew up, I just associated going to sea with beards. I think in a way it was just easier when you are bunking with a bunch of different people with limited space.

He didn’t necessarily shave them off as soon as he got back home, and later in life, after he retired, my dad occasionally let his beard grow. I never talked to him about that choice, but he was my dad with or without a beard. (Not like when my mom got new glasses and she didn’t look like my mom until I got used to them.)

In the ’90s, I used to watch the science fiction series “SeaQuest DSV”, set on a high-tech submarine. My favorite character was Chief Manilow Crocker, played by Royce D. Applegate. He was a chief; my dad retired as a chief. He wore a beard, like my dad. The backcard of his action figure (left) describes him as the “old man of the sea.” Guess what, some of the young people my dad served with used to call him TOMOTS (toe-motts), short for “The Old Man of the Sea.”

These days, the military limits beard growth. As I understand it, in most cases, they’re only allowed with a religious exemption, especially now, as they can reduce the effective of facial coverings during the coronavirus pandemic. The military website Task and Purpose, in October 2020, reported that the Navy is reconsidering its grooming standards and could possibly change the rules for beards. We’ll see.

As for me, I’ll always associate a neatly trimmed beard of a certain length with my dad and his service in the Navy.

“Bearded” is the week 45 prompt in genealogist Amy Johnson Crow’s 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks Challenge. She created the challenge to encourage people to write about their family. Participants can write about their own lives (for your children, if you have them, or for future genealogists and historians) or about their ancestors. If you are reading this post and you’re interested in participating, check out the list of prompts for 2020. You can start at any time. If you need to, you can skip a week (or post late, as I have several times). You can interpret the prompts loosely, or if you’re not inspired by one of them at all, you can just write about something else.

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#52Ancestors in 52 Weeks: Scary Stuff

When I was in high school, I was just going to bed one night when I heard a sound out the window. We had a greenhouse right up against the house, and I could just imagine someone lurking around out there. So, I got up, turned on the bedside lamp, and walked over to the window. I was trying to see out when suddenly I could see this huge shadow of something looming up behind me. You’ve seen that before in horror movies and Scooby-Doo, right? I was instantly terrified, and I whirled around ready to scream for my life. It was my cat. He stood up to stretch and was right between me and bedside lamp.

I am not positive of the year this next thing happened, but I think it was August 1982 or ’83. It was definitely August. I was staying at my grandparents’ house in Midway, between Gulf Breeze and Navarre in Santa Rosa County, Florida. I went out about 10:00 p.m. to watch the Perseid meteor shower. I had the perfect view of the sky from the end of their pier that jutted out into East Bay.

Map showing where my grandparents lived on East Bay.

I hadn’t been out long when I saw a red light in the sky. It was glowing red and also pulsing a brighter red. It was coming straight across the bay towards me. I couldn’t hear any engine noise, which usually would carry over the water. I felt exposed on the end of the pier and ran back to shore. When I did that, the light stopped moving. It just hovered there. Okay, so, helicopter? I had seen helicopters across the water at night before, shining searchlights below. Nothing this time but that red pulsing light hovering in the night sky. It was, to me, an unidentified flying object. Whether it was a spaceship or not, I will never know, but all the possibilities (Darth Vader or Han Solo? E.T. or the Xenomorph from “Alien”) went through my mind. I was alternately terrified and excited. Then whatever-it-was turned north-northeast and eventually went around the corner and disappeared from view.

I ran back to the house and told my grandparents, Hoyt & Willie Cook, and I think my cousin Jimmy was there, what I had seen. They told me they had just seen on the news that there was a meteor shower. Yes, I said, I know all about the meteor shower. That’s why I was outside. And I’ve seen them before, and a shooting star doesn’t glow red and pulse a brighter red, and it definitely doesn’t stop and hover in the air. They just laughed and I went back and saw a glorious astronomical show with dozens of meteors.

Just in case you’re wondering, it was several years later that the Gulf Breeze Sentinel newspaper published those infamous photos that turned the town into a mecca for UFO enthusiasts. I remember reading a full page of first-person accounts of sightings, and one of them described exactly what I saw. At least I know that whatever it was, I didn’t imagine it.

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More Effective Use of DNA for Genealogy

If you’ve taken a DNA test for the purposes of learning more about your family tree, breaking through brick walls, and finding long lost cousins, you may be able to take steps that will improve your results.


If you are an adoptee, you may not know your last name at birth. Everyone else, make sure that the name your matches see is your last name at birth. I made this mistake at first. When 23andMe asked for my name, I typed in my current last name. Later, I realized what I had done and changed it to my maiden name, or in a couple of cases I used both my maiden name and my married name.

23andMe – Click on your name in the upper right corner. From the dropdown menu, choose “profile.” This shows you what other users see. If you need to make changes, click “edit.” Change your last name and make sure the “DNA Relatives Display Name” shows other users your last name at birth.

Ancestry – Edit your name under “Your Account.” The Username field reflects what your DNA matches will see.

FamilyTreeDNA – Click on your name in the upper right corner and select “Edit Account Settings.”

MyHeritage – Click on your name in the upper right and select “Account Settings.”

The reason for using or including your birth name is that it’s more likely your DNA matches will have your birth name in their family tree than your married name or adopted name or whatever other name you may use.

A lot of people use random made-up user IDs. Please, if you’re uncomfortable using your full name, at least include your birth name, or your mother’s maiden name, or something that might help your matches figure out where you might fit in their family.


Even if you’re just getting started, most people (and again, I’m excusing adoptees here) know a few members of their family. Please build a family tree and make it public. Living people are protected, but having even a few deceased family members visible to your matches will help them narrow down which side of their family you may be on.

In addition, Ancestry and MyHeritage now have automated tools that analyze family trees between you and your DNA matches and look for common ancestors. Those tools can’t work if you don’t have at least a small family tree.


I haven’t fully researched this at each company, but I know 23andMe will let you choose not to participate in DNA Relatives. You can’t see any of your matches; nor will they see you in their match list. If you took a DNA test on a lark to see your ethnicity, if you learned something disturbing and you don’t want to know any more, if you were more interested in health results, then look for a way to go private. You won’t be bothered by anyone trying to make a connection, and in turn, your DNA cousins won’t be frustrated by your lack of response.


DNA research is exciting, especially when you see a new match pop up that could help you solve one of your brick walls. It’s also time consuming, at times difficult and complicated, and you may find yourself wanting to bang your head against your brick walls. By taking these few simple actions, you will improve your interactions with at least some of your matches, and hopefully ease the way for both you and your DNA cousins.

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#52Ancestors in 52 Weeks: Quite the Character

I’ve written about Pap-pa – my mother’s father, Hoyt Cook – several times before. About his different lines of work, about how he achieved prosperity, and about the practical joke he played on me (and a ‘possum).

I’m writing about him again because he’s the first person I thought of when Amy Johnson Crow posted this week’s prompt for her 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks Challenge.

When we were going on a long drive, Pap-pa would chew on the side of his finger. He fell asleep easily (we wonder now if he had narcolepsy), and he said chewing on his finger helped keep him awake. He also played the harmonica on the road. One had lyrics about the “Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, on the trail of the lonesome pine.” Another had something to do with a cow and railroad tracks, I think.

Dewey Hoyt Cook

He had one of those plastic figurines where you pulled down the boy’s pants and he, well, you know. He got a big kick out of teasing us kids with that.

He also told tall tales that began with, “When I was a little Indian boy…” To hear him tell it, he used alligators as stepping stones through the swamp and killed three turkeys and a bear with one well-aligned arrow.

When I visited them at their home on Lagniappe Beach in the Midway area between Gulf Breeze and Navarre, Florida, he would take me out fishing on his boat. He taught me how to bait my hook and clean the fish. Sometimes he’d bring a watermelon from his garden and slice it up on the patio overlooking East Bay. To this day, I believe watermelon is for eating outdoors, preferably while swimming.

I’m pretty sure he’s the one who showed me how to tell when a pancake is just right to be flipped. He would cook six or eight at a time on a griddle.

Pap-pa was a talker, too. He never met a stranger and could always make conversation. I was surprised when my mom told me that he ran for county commissioner once but wasn’t elected. She said he wasn’t a good public speaker. He could talk to anyone, and he was a teacher and a coach, but I guess facing an audience of his peers and trying to talk them into something just wasn’t his thing.

He was full of knowledge about the natural world. He was very observant of plants and animals and their behavior. I remember him telling me once that when a hurricane is coming, the tops of trees would blow in a circle. He shared some of his weather observations with reporters in 1977 and 1981.

This year, my husband has noticed squirrels furiously digging holes in the yard and burying their nuts. We even found a few small pecans stashed away where one of our sandbags spilled on the back porch. This level of squirrel activity isn’t something we’ve seen before in our 16 years at this home. And guess what? I’m seeing reports that a weak polar vortex could bring an early start to winter.

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#52Ancestors in 52 Weeks: Proud

Some prompts in Amy Johnson Crow’s 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks Challenge immediately inspire a story about a particular ancestor. “Proud” was a tough one. I mean, I’ve already written about some of the ancestors I’m proud to claim – the strong women, determined women, and the hard workers.

Maybe, then, it’s time to toot my own horn and think about some of the reasons I should be proud of what I’ve accomplished.

Genealogically, I’ve filled in some holes in my family tree and my husband’s. I’ve found documents to support the work of my aunts and cousins. I’ve expanded the knowledge we have about not just our direct ancestors, but their siblings and children as well.

Beyond genealogy, which is a recent pursuit, here are some highlights from my life.

I started first grade technically when I was 5, but the school year began when I was 4. I graduated high school, junior college, and college with honors, though I didn’t always apply myself over the years, and I’m still not good with math.

One thing I have always enjoyed is creative writing. I won second place in the third grade poetry contest with this gem:

I have no idea why the judges thought that was was one of the top entries. Maybe they didn’t have much to choose from.

My first job was working in a bookstore (dream job for a voracious reader). I went on to work at two local TV stations, for Walt Disney World, for a community theatre, and for the Sci-Fi Channel (before it was on the air and long before Syfy was a thing).

And I made a movie. Just a short film but it was an amazing experience that fulfilled a childhood dream of directing a movie.

I often find myself thinking of the might-have-beens. The dreams that never came true (and I’m still dreaming). It’s easy to dwell on those things, but taking a moment to remember even the small achievements is a good way to find pride in oneself.

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#52Ancestors in 52 Weeks: Newest

I recently learned about a new relative and expanded one branch of my husband’s family tree. Out of the blue, he mentioned that one of his teenage cousins had killed himself years ago. I won’t go into details here, because the cousin still – as far as I can tell – has a living sister.

“I’ve always wondered about my cousin Mark,” my husband said, as we sat on the couch one evening. Mark was a few years older than Tim, and he lived in another state, so Tim didn’t know him well, but he had met him. He had heard the adults mention a few shocking details at the time, but nothing more. Tim recalled that several family members were upset with Tim’s dad because he had said he couldn’t afford to fly out to attend the funeral.

Tim wasn’t sure which of his uncles was Mark’s father, but a few minutes toggling between FamilySearch and soon turned up a funeral notice, which said Mark had died after a short illness. It named a cemetery, but FindAGrave doesn’t have any record of it, so I wonder if they never bought a headstone.

St. Bernard Cemetery, Enfield, Connecticut (Photo by Jan Franco/FindAGrave)

I feel that we need to record the details Tim remembers about Mark’s death, but I’m a little uneasy about it, too. I wouldn’t want to cause another family member pain. I don’t know where the information came from before it filtered down to my husband’s parents. Was it directly from Mark’s father or mother? Did it come via another relative? How accurate is it? Tim told me what he’d heard about the method of death, where the body was found, an item that may or may not be related found in his room, where that item supposedly came from, and a person who may or may not have had any direct involvement with Mark.

I added information about a suicide to a different relative’s profile on FamilySearch. I felt a little uneasy about that as well, but he was a couple of generations back. In that case, I recorded my mother’s memories of what she’d heard about his death.

In these cases, I’m sure the death certificate – which I do not have in either case – would confirm the suicide. I don’t know why family members would be told the deaths were self-inflicted if they were not. I do know that the stigma of suicide, even stronger in the past than now, might prevent some younger family members from being told the truth. I always fear creating a feud with a grandchild or niece/nephew who will be angry such a thing was suggested, if it’s something they were never told.

Mark’s obituary did fill in some blanks. I had not had any information about his father’s wife or other children. Adding their names led me to more records and more details about their lives.

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