Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Eureka! Lessons from a gold mine

By Patricia Burrow


Did you hear my whoop? It had to have been loud enough to hear all across Silicon Valley. I was doing some mundane census work on when some incredible pictures showed up. My second-great-grandparents!!!! Oh, and my great-grandfather!!!!

I don't usually do a generic search on my surnames but was looking for census people with nicknames. I just put in Stallings, born in Georgia. About 30 hits down were these pictures--two family photos, one taken about 1895 and the other probably 30 years later. This grandmother was married to a man who was killed in the Civil War and then married Nathan Stallings. She had four children by the first husband and then five more with Nathan.

When I did my initial census work on them, I had to do a spreadsheet because the ages of the kids did not make sense, and I knew that there was something off. She was 11 years older than Nathan, and the kids were too old to be his (it is usually the other way around, the woman is too young to have the kids). It took some time to sort them all out, as they all took the name Stallings on the 1870 Census. Anyway, now I have some faces to add to these kids, too.

My genealogy high was just too much to contain. So I looked for the person who had submitted and posted the photos. Turns out he is actually from another "branch," but he told me he got the pictures from a lady on another website, I had not been on Find-a-Grave in a while, so I trotted right on over to it and found my ancestors just waiting for me. Judy Brantley/Wilson has submitted more than 18,000 postings to Find-A-Grave.

In reading her bio, I found out that, in addition to posting photos and writing short bios on each of her own ancestors and their families, she is documenting a cemetery that is all but abandoned. It is on the outskirts of Atlanta, Georgia, all covered in weeds and kudzu to the point that it is almost impossible to see the markers; many markers are buried in the undergrowth. The owners are not interested in doing anything about it, so it is listed as "non-perpetual care" (oh, REALLY?).

Judy is not only indexing each headstone but getting the death certificate of each person and researching each family enough to do a write-up on Find-A-Grave. It is a mammoth project, but she enjoys it so much. Her email address was in her bio, so I clicked on it and sent her an email asking if she were related to my family. We figured out that we are second cousins. She is a fount of information. She has sent me more than 30 photographs of family members that I have never seen before.

Several lessons can be learned here, but mainly the classic lessons can be relearned:

  1. Even though you did a Google search several years ago, repeat it every now and then. Go back to sites you searched last year and search them again.

  2. Do a generic search on your favorite sites every now and then to see if there is something new from the last time you looked.

  3. When you find the name of one of your ancestors posted on a website, click on the submitter's email address and email to ask the submitter if he or she is a family member and where he or she got the information. I don't like user submitted-family trees that I find online, as they often are from a name collector or are junk genealogy. But every once in a while, it will be a distant family member who has done some very good research. It is easy to upload a GEDCOM; it is difficult to find and document quality evidence.

  4. Get and maintain the best quality photos you can. I downloaded the photos I found from both and, but they were very low resolution. If I had tried to print them, they would have been grainy. I asked Judy to rescan the best photos so that I would have a good quality digital copy. Remember to scan your photos to TIFF with at least 300 dpi. Label them on your computer as well as on any printouts you make. You don't want your great-grandchildren to say, "Who was that funny-looking lady with the big hair?" Also, back up your photos and genealogy files!
It has been more than a week since my wonderful find, and I am still on a high. It will take me a while to sort through all of the things I have learned and apply them to my other surnames. Meanwhile, I have these wonderful pictures to look at: Nathan and Sarah and a family photo that was taken more than 100 years ago, before I was born, before my mom was here, before my grandmother had a name. But, this is my family.

I share this as a lesson to remember. When you are doing your own research, keep in mind that this is your family history, and that you may be the only family member who gathers and organizes the stories and pictures of four or five generations. You are, or will be, the oldest member of your own line and, by virtue of that position, you have the responsibility to ensure that the family history does not get lost, and does get passed down to future generations.


Photo caption: Nathan Vinson Stallings and Sarah Ann Frances Cochran Sykes Stallings and family. Front Row L to R: Nathan Vinson Stallings, Sarah Ann Frances Cochran Sykes Stallings. Back Row L to R: Francis M. Chambers, Mary Rosanna Sykes Chambers, Sara Margaret Sykes Green, Harriet Ellen Sykes Cobb, Eliza Adeline Stallings Conner, Charley E. Stallings. L to R, the three girls are by Sarah's first marriage to Darling Sykes. Eliza and Charlie are Nathan's and Sarah's children. Francis M. Chambers is the husband of Mary Rosanna Sykes. From photo collection of Judy Brantley Wilson,


  1. Great article, Pat! It gives me hope.

    Bill George

  2. Pat,
    I'm just finding this wonderful article and I'll be including a link to it in the California Genealogical Society January eNews. Great reminders!