New York State Family History Conference 2015–Day 1 recap

This weekend I’m in Syracuse, New York for the New York State Family History Conference. Syracuse is a quick two-and-a-half hour train ride from Buffalo on Amtrak according to their schedule, which as you may know is very, let’s say, flexible. Still, I love the train and highly recommend it if you have the time and patience. It’s so much better than driving, and usually runs close-to-on-time here in New York State. Cross-country on the train is great, too, but that’s for another post.

Syracuse is a cute little town situated just southeast of the eastern end of Lake Ontario. Because of it’s location, they get a lot of snow in the winter. I mean, A LOT. I don’t know why Buffalo is so well-known for snow when Syracuse averages 30 inches more in a season. I suspect it’s because Buffalo tends to get these epic lake-effect storms and blizzards, like Snowvember 2014, the Blizzard of ’77, and many more. If you’re interested, any Buffalo native will gladly list them for you. That’s another post, too.

Like I said, I’m in Syracuse for the New York State Family History Conference. I have some New York ancestry, mostly Colonial New York. What really drew my interest for this conference is the full-day track on genetic genealogy. Those sessions are on Saturday, so more on that later. But after Day 1, I have no regrets about being here.

The day started with an excellent session by Curt Witcher, MLS, FUGA, IGSF, the Genealogy Center Manager at the Allen County Public Library. (Incidentally, this is the first time I’ve heard Curt speak, and I highly recommend him. He’s definitely knows his stuff, and has a very entertaining presentation style.) He pretty much set the tone for the day, talking about ancestral origins and how they can be a significant research clue. Many genealogists tend to get focused on our own ancestors; I’m just as guilty as any other. We forget that our ancestors weren’t the only ones leaving their homelands and moving across the oceans. Curt talked about looking at the bigger picture of why they moved, the factors that influenced where they moved, and the history and demographics in their homeland and their new home at the time they moved. One quote that stood out for me was:

Many times our ancestors migrated not because something bad was happening at home, but because another place was being marketed really well to them. He shared some stories about people who migrated to America from Europe. After arriving, they wrote back home about how wonderful it was and how much easier life was. That may or may not have been true, but either way it had the same effect: their friends and neighbors in the Old Country soon followed. As a result, genealogical studies have shown that large groups from one area in Europe mostly settled in the same small areas in the United States. If you know where you’re ancestor lived after migrating to America, a little historical research on the area can help narrow down your search for their ancestral homeland from, “Germany,” for example, to a part of Germany or even a cluster of villages in a particular part of what was then Prussia.

Curt’s also a fan of the “insomnia-busting” bibliographies. He loves bibliographies, footnotes and endnotes because they lead to more information that you many not have known about or thought to look at. And he really pushed learning about immigration patterns in general to better understand when, where and why people moved.

Overall message: genealogy is more than people; it’s sociology, demography, and social history. Don’t ignore those bits!

Next, there were a couple of sessions on using maps in researching family history by Matt Knutzen, He is the newly-minted Director of the Humanities and Social Sciences Research Division at the New York Public Library Stephen A. Schwartzman Building. He shared some amazing stuff that the NYPL is doing with their maps collections that will make them more accessible to the public as well as turn them into a fount of useful data. They’ll go from an image on a sheet of paper to a time machine, showing a vast array of information as cities and places changed through time and space. It sounds way out-of-this-world put that way, but it was fascinating stuff!

It starts with the Map Warper, which allows to overlay a historical map onto a current-day view of the same area. That in and of itself is way cool, especially when you’re trying to find places that no longer exist, like a farm from the 18th century that is now in the middle of a suburb in a major metropolitan area. But then it got even grander!

There are a host of other projects they are working on, particularly focused on New York City, that will make maps come alive. They range from plotting historical photographs and news events to the locations where they occurred; diagraming buildings and building types, with their historic addresses so we can get a better sense of how people lived and their economic statuses; cataloging old menus from restaurants, many of which no longer exist, giving us a better idea of the neighborhood life; extracting historical data from oral narratives and tagging the information on city maps. There are so many uses for this sort of technology in family history!

Even better, the whole goal is to make it available to the public, and make the software completely open-source and available to other libraries and organizations to do the same in their areas. Check out some of what they’re working on at, and particularly check out the NYC Space/Time Directory project to learn how you can help with data extractions.

Overall message: again, our ancestors lived in a bigger world than just their families. Get to know their neighborhoods to understand their stories. And technology is our BEST. FRIEND. EVER!

Third-cousin Matt Knutzen and me

Third-cousin Matt Knutzen and me

Of course, it wouldn’t be a genealogy conference without a cousin encounter. During Matt’s introduction to using maps in family history research, he used his own family as an example, and their were some very familiar names. We share a great-great grandfather, William Van Orden Carbine, making us third-cousins. During his presentation, he shared some stories that I had never heard before. I’m excited to start looking into that part of my family again, and connecting with him to learn more about what he’s found.

Finally, there was the incomparable Judy Russell, JD, CG, CGL. I never pass up a session with Judy if I can help it. She’s such a good story-teller (and she’s got some good ones), and she’s just so dang entertaining! And I LOVE her intensity about family history and stories. Her session was about using court records to tell the story of our ancestors’ lives. I was particularly interested in this session because I recently received a LOT of court records with some great and some not-so-flattering stories, and I was curious to see what other insights I could gain from her about how to use and share them.

Like the other presentations, it wasn’t just about using the records that involve our ancestors. Yes, those are good because they tell specific stories about our particular people. But even if our ancestors steered clear of the law–and they rarely did because everything involves legal records of some kind–court records can give us a glimpse of what life was like in a given area at a particular time. They can tell about the economics of the time; how much a funeral cost; what was happening in the area they lived; what types of people they lived amongst; and so much more. Again, it’s about the story of their lives, which is so much more than names, dates, and places.

It was a long, full day. The exhibit hall has some great stuff as well. I had a good discussion with the folks at Family Tree DNA about some curious results in my husband’s DNA. His second-cousin had the same results, so I’m thinking about looking into that more with them. And I’m excited about today’s genetic genealogy track sessions.



One response to “New York State Family History Conference 2015–Day 1 recap

  1. It sounds like a great conference. I am going to check out that map tool. I don’t have upstate NY relatives (that I know of), but lots from NYC. Are you in Syracuse? I’ve never heard it referred to as a town before! Isn’t it the third biggest city in NYS after NYC and Buffalo?

    Thanks for the summary!


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