Photographs for Research

Any genealogist or historian that follows my blog understands what I mean when I say that research is expensive. A $10 record there and a $15 record there can add up quickly not to mention the occasional need for a record that costs $50, subscription fees, and dues for society memberships. Last year, I was extremely fortunate to receive a research grant for $1,000 and donations through GoFundMe for my Captain McGarry project. Those funds helped propel my research for a year, including a research trip to Helena, Montana. My research for Captain McGarry is now entering its final phases- all thanks to the Charles Redd Center and everyone who donated.

One of my favorite hobbies is photography. Over the years, several people have suggested that I should trying to sell some of my pictures. While I am not sure if any of my pictures are truly that good, I have decided to give it a try! I have chosen to sell my pictures through the website Fine Art America. They handle the printing, customer service, and collection of payment so while the percentage of my take home profit is lower it comes with a lot less hassle and upfront costs. While the purchase of one of my photographs does not constitute a donation for tax purposes, the profits will go towards funding my Captain McGarry project and future research projects including my work on other steamboat captains and the Overland trail.

You can view the gallery of photographs I currently have for sale at:

Thank you to all of those who have supported my projects!



Hello Fall

Image (c) 2014, Kassie L Nelson
Image (c) 2014, Kassie L Nelson

It’s finally one of my favorite months of the year.   I love everything about October- the colors, the crisp air, pumpkins, hot apple cider, Halloween…the list goes on and on! This fall is an extra exciting time for me this year.  I hate how cliché this sounds, but, it truly is a season of changes and new ventures.

A changing child care situation combined with increased opportunities at my husband work translated into the necessity and opportunity for me to leave my job at a local museum and be home with my son.  My little boy isn’t so little anymore and will be going to all day kindergarten next year. I am grateful and excited to have extra time with him!

My cutie pie.
My cutie pie.

This also means that I now have extra time to really focus on my other love- researching and writing! Currently in my work que is an article for submission to an academic journal and a paper proposal for the 2016 Missouri Valley History Conference. Both of these relate to my ground breaking thesis that fused Emigrant-Native American relations with gender studies along the Overland Trail, but, then I took it a step further by using a quantitative analysis method.  It’s a mouthful I know.

Then, of course, there’s my gigantic research project- a biography of a steamboat captain. My friends would probably tell you that it is an obsession more than anything else and they would be right! I believe it may be the most thoroughly researched biography of a steamboat captain, perhaps even of steamboat captains in general, ever endeavored. It will encompass multiple aspects of steamboat history. I expect this project to yield numerous papers for conferences, articles, a book on its applications to genealogy, several presentations, and either one very lengthy book or a short series of books. I also expect this particular project to take several years due to the amount of records I need to examine and the funding challenges an independent historian faces. In the meanwhile, expect to see more blog posts about what it is like to be “stay at home historian.”

Now off to sneak in some research!



Genealogists & Cemeteries

Last week I gave a presentation at the Nebraska State Genealogical Society 2015 Conference. I discussed my history with genealogy a bit which included my high school years. I was not the most popular person to begin with and then I added to that a hobby involving cemeteries. Well , that just pushed me closer to the line of complete and utter social exile. I remember many conversations that went something like this- “Whoa, wait- so you like go to cemeteries and stuff?”- “Yes, from time to time.”- “That’s creepy.” The word creepy can be substituted with the words weird, strange, and crazy if not that entire response replaced with “huh” and a quick retreat of the other party in the conversation. Fast forward about 15, 16 years and what do my weekend plans involve? Yep, a cemetery.

Mekemson Graves

This all got me thinking, what is it about genealogists and cemeteries? What is about cemeteries and me? Why does the concept of liking cemeteries sound strange to non-genealogists? The answer to the third question may be a bit obvious, but, I wonder if there is a bit more to it than that. There are so many stereotypes from within and outside of the genealogy community that it makes me wonder if a genealogist’s adoration of cemeteries has also been stereotyped? Is the equation of genealogist + a cemetery = fun a stereotype?

I see a lot of jokes, particularly in the form of memes, about this adoration. I chuckle when I see one. I may even share it. Although, I have never actually seen a genealogist camping out in a cemetery or skipping down the rows with glee. If I did, I would probably tell them to stop. When I see a cemetery I don’t start jumping up and down with excitement nor have I ever yelled at my husband to stop the car so I can walk through one.  Am I the oddball here? ‘Cause you know I’ve never been the oddball before….(stares at feet and whistles).


I would venture to state that I enjoy walking through cemeteries, but I am not sure if I would label it as something I do just for fun. I think going to Dave and Busters, bowling, or hiking as things I do just for fun. Perhaps the issue I struggle with is that it does not seem right to use the word fun when referring to the final resting place of so many souls. Cemeteries serve as the setting for a couple of my hobbies, but, my respect for the dead quells any desire to skip through or camp in any cemeteries (not to mention I find the latter to be truly creepy and strange even for me).  Why then am I drawn to cemeteries?

I try to visit the resting place of an ancestor whenever I can. Certainly there are many clues about our ancestors’ lives to be found in a cemetery, but that’s neither what this post is about nor my main motivation. The reason I go to cemeteries is to first and foremost to simply pay my respects. That’s also true of those who I research but am not related. After all I have uncovered, or tried to uncover, it feels a bit like an obligation to go and it deepens my connection with the departed. The feeling I get when I stand at the grave of one my ancestors is beyond description.


The other hobby I alluded to is photography. I do find photography fun. But it’s a different when I go to photograph a cemetery. I photograph cemeteries to capture the stories that are found there. Stories abound. The setting and condition of a cemetery tells a story. The actual headstones themselves tell stories of those who are buried there, who buried them, and the person who carved it. There is a beauty found within each of these stories that I feel honored to capture. In my own way, I am saying to them, “You are not forgotten.”

What is it about cemeteries and you? Do you feel the same, or is this another instance of my being an oddball or perhaps even too serious of a person? Is there a stereotype about genealogists and cemeteries, are they true? Is it wrong if they are?

Throwback Thursday- My First Probate

During the summer of 2002, while others my age were spending their days by the pool with their girlfriend/boyfriend, working on their tans…I was scouring the countryside of Henderson County, Illinois for clues as to when my grandparents old farmhouse was built. This project arose from a family gathering earlier in the year in which the subject of “How old is this house? Who lived here?” was debated once again. I started researching my family tree four years earlier and thought “Hmmm….I bet I can figure out how to do that.” Armed with “House Histories” by Sally Light in hand, I started tracking down any and all records pertaining to the house.

(c) Kassie Nelson

Working on the house history project introduced me to a wide array of records, as well as the history of Henderson County.  By the end of summer, my stack of records had grown to a good size and I had a time frame of when the house was probably built narrowed down- but I needed more and wanted to really picture what it was like “back in the day.” Probate records were highly recommended in Light’s book so onto the “To Get Next Time We Visit Grandma” list it went. I had not yet actually ever looked at a probate record, keep in mind I was only 17 at the time. The only problem was that prior to 1900, only one of the owners of the property died while the property was still in their possession. With fingers crossed, I went to the Henderson County Courthouse to inquire about probate records for Joseph S. Mekemson who died in 1875.

The index for the probate records were held in the nicely light and air-conditioned clerk’s office. The actual file- with the good stuff- was downstairs in the basement. The only light I could find was a single light bulb that flickered in a manner that seemed to be right out of Stephen King novel. I was certain at any instant a mouse was liable to run out in front of me. Fortunately, the file boxes were all very clearly labeled so locating the right one was a quick task. Once I opened it and held 150+ year old documents in my hands, a mouse could have run up my leg and I wouldn’t have noticed. I had discovered a treasure trove.

Joseph Mekemson, his wife Mary and their four children are buried at the South Henderson Cemetery just outside of Gladstone, Illinois. It is one of the most beautiful cemeteries that I have ever visited.

At this point in my research, I was not only strongly emotionally attached to the house but the families that had lived there especially the Mekemson family. Joseph supposedly went west to California in 1850 where he made a good amount of money by selling goods to miners. I knew Joseph lived at the home with his second wife, Mary McClinton (the daughter of the next door neighbor), that they had four children,  and of these children died at a young age while the family lived in the farmhouse. One of their surviving daughters, Luna, made it to adulthood but never married and died at a relatively young age. I felt a strong connection to her in particular as she had suffered from a variety of health problems, something I could relate to. The Mekemson’s other surviving daughter, Elvina lived a long life, but also never married.

Joseph’s probate file provided an incredible snapshot of life in 1875. He died intestate- meaning without a valid will. A thorough assessment of his possessions, land holdings, and debts was subsequently conducted. From all of this I was able to learn what type of furniture was in the house, the types of tools they had, what they grew in their garden, the types of and how many animals they owned, how many acres they owned- of that how much was planted with corn, how much cash they had on hand, who Joseph owed money to, and much more. While the Mekemson farm was certainly not the largest in the county, it appears that they did rather well.

One page of the appraisal of Joseph Mekemson’s property.

The piece of paper that was the cherry on top pertained to the insurance policy taken out on the house. It had been long suspected that the house may have been built in two sections, but I had no idea when the second section was added. On this paper the house was described as a “2 & 1 story” house. Now, I knew- prior to 1875.

Now, if only I had written down all of the information needed for a full and proper citation!



Riddles and Signatures

Originally posted 13 September 2012

There is a certain magic and sense of mystery that keeps me addicted to genealogy.  There is always a new riddle to solve, a curious phenomenon to encounter. Sometimes beneath the stack of dates and facts my ancestors seem more like an abstract idea than actual person who was very much alive and breathing at one point in one time. But, then there is at that moment. That breathless moment where my heartbeat and everything around me seems to stop, that moment when another voice seems to whisper, “Yes, they were really here.”

These breathless moments always catch me off guard. For one ancestor it may be a picture that causes this, for another a ship manifest, but more often than not it happens when I see their signature. The first time this happened for my five great grandparents Joseph Guillaume and Catherine Delaitre was earlier this summer when I saw their signatures on their marriage record. But every once in a while, I am lucky enough to experience that same breathless moment about one of my ancestors more than once.

ImageThere were many unexpected treasures in Joseph’s probate record. I had not expected to find tantalizing clues about the type of person Catherine was.  Imagine my surprise when I realized that a woman who died a hundred years before I was born may have actually been a lot like me.

Catherine’s signature appears numerous times throughout the file, mostly on receipts from the year of her husband’s death in 1878 through 1885 when she died. My favorite of these is a receipt dated April 1882. A comparison of her signature from when she married in 1829 to this receipt shows that her handwriting had shaky and it appears writing may have become difficult for her. This in of itself is not surprising, but, it makes me wonder if the she perhaps suffered from some of the same ailments that affected my grandmother and great-grandmother. Then I noticed something else about her signature. Below the ‘G’ there is ‘Del.’ I do not think it would be an unreasonable deduction to make that she had started signing her maiden name Delaitre, caught her mistake and wrote her married name over the top.


There could be many reasons why Catherine had started writing her maiden name. Perhaps a bit of senility, perhaps just run of the mill absent mindedness (I still from time to time sign my last name as Rice not Nelson), or it could be something to do with French culture and traditions.

The next discovery I made was a letter written by the executor, August Cazalet, to his attorney A. Simpson which by itself contained some curious verbiage but this was accompanied by a very curious and eye-opening letter. This second curious letter is a copy August made for A. Simpson of a letter that Catherine sent him.


Perhaps I am making too much out of her letter, but, I am struck by how Catherine reiterated that these notes were in her possession. She used the exact phrase “my possession” in back to back to sentences. She seemed very adamant that they would remain in her possession. While she did not state her reasons for holding onto the original notes I cannot help but admire the spunk it took to disobey the executor of her husband’s estate at a time when women’s rights were severely limited. A high level of obstinacy is made apparent by the document that this letter was ultimately filed along with to the court- a request for a citation to be issued against Catherine. Two words things that I am often told are that a) I have a lot of spunk and b) I am extremely stubborn. Apparently these are family traits with deep roots.

Was it just good old fashion stubbornness that made Catherine hold onto those notes with all of her might? Was she worried she would not receive her share of the notes? Unfortunately, without an explanation documented all I have are clues. This was the first of several clashes between August Cazalet and Joseph Guillaume’s heirs over finances and the handling of the estate. Accusations went both ways over the course of 26 years. It leaves my cousins and I wondering if this was the start of a feud between the family’s descendants and that of a family with whom August Cazalet was banking partners with? More on that another day…..



Joseph Guilliaume estate, Christian County Probate File No. 1006, Christian County Circuit Clerk, Vandaila, Illinois.


How Much Do Professional Genealogists Charge?

Originally posted February 20, 2012

I have been considering overhauling how I charge for my services with the goal in mind of streamlining and simplifying without sacrificing flexibility. I decided to surf the net Friday night to get a feel for #1) what other genealogists charge as well as how (in advance, expenses separate, retainers, etc.) and #2) what potential clients see when they research hiring a genealogist. I typed in the search field on Google how do professional genealogists charge. I came across a message board on Yahoo Answers (link will be inserted at the bottom of this blog) under a thread entitled How much does it cost to hire a genealogist. Two responses were posted and both provided some great guidance, but they also contained some guidance I find to be disturbing.

The first responder posted the following:

“Most charge by the hour, and you tell them how many hours you can afford for them to work. Professionals charge $25 – $100 per hour, usually with an 8, 12 or 20-hour minimum.

A poor but honest widow might do it for $10 – $15 per hour, cash under the table (Not completely honest; fiddle dee dee to the IRS).”

The second responder posted the following:

“A professional genealogists depending on experience and ability could charge $100 or more an hour with a minimum number of hours up front depending on the information you want and the amount of documentation needed. A non-professional, again depending on experience and ability would charge less.”

Comments like this, even though they are generalizations, are dangerous and irresponsible ones to make. They falsely plant the seed in people’s minds that professional genealogists who charge less than $100 are defrauding the U.S. Government and/or lack ability and experience. Comments like these hurt the image of many professional genealogists. So let’s itemize my problem with these posts shall we?

1: “A poor but honest widow” is an archaic and sexist comment to make. I do not think it is ever appropriate to use the term widow in a manner such as this. It degrades the hardships that real widows have gone through and continue to face.

2: From the quick research I did this weekend, I think the statement that most professionals charge between $25-$100 is a fair assessment. However, just because you charge less than $25 does not mean you take cash under the table or fail to report even part of your income to the IRS. That implication is unfounded and unfair, there are always a few bad apples in the bushel, but, there are probably a few who do make more than $25 an hour who do not report their income or all of it.

3: To use the term non-professional to refer to those making less than $100 is absurd. The APG has been debating what it means to be professional and if that should entail education, credentials, etc., but, in the true sense of the meaning of the word professional if you charge for your services you are one. Again, the generalization that if you charge less than this means you do not have a lot of experience or ability is a dangerous one to make.

I obviously know these comments were made out of ignorance and are over-reaching generalizations, but, I do still take it somewhat personally. I am in the opinion that just because you can charge a certain amount does not mean that you should. I could not look myself in the mirror if I charged someone $100 an hour; I would feel like I was taking advantage of them. Just because I do not charge that much does not mean that my time is not valuable. I have often found that the impact knowing your family history has a value attached to it that cannot be accurately assessed in monetary terms. I am not in this for money. I am in this because of the passion I have for it, part of that passion is the ability to give someone a part of their history they did not before, and seeing the meaning it has for them. When I see someone get a look of awe, tear up, or smile when I hand them their family history report- I know I have done my job well. I charge under $25 an hour, I realize that as the cost of living increases or if I move somewhere with a higher cost of living I may have to raise my rates; but you can bet I will agonize over the decision and put off doing so for as long as I can.

This question was posted over a year ago, unfortunately Yahoo does not let me see the exact date it was posted or when it was posted. I am neither overly thrilled nor impressed with the profiles of these responders and obviously have a problem with their responses. My concern is that others who stumble across this thread will not do the same, that those who do not know better will read these will take them seriously. I will be contacting the gentlemen who posted these comments and posting my own comment. It is something that I cannot simply ignore. I’ll let you know how it goes! Meanwhile, if you would like to check out their responses for yourself follow this link:


Five Lessons From a Transitional Genealogist

Originally posted on 27 March 2012.

It’s been a little over a year since I launched my business and what an interesting road it has been. In the past year I’ve had to figure out not only all the business side of Cedar Tree Genealogy but also how to balance it with my home life (which includes caring for my 18 month old son and 6 year old daughter) and schoolwork. So far I have had a total of 4 “clients”. I call everyone I do work for a client whether it be a pro bono project, a project stemming from a donation to a local charity auction, or someone who is actually paying me.  Here’s a bit of what I have learned about the differences between being a hobbyist and professional:

1-      When I first started my business I had in mind certain ways that I would and would not conduct my business, ideals if you will. One of the hardest lessons to accept is that the way you think things will be and the way they actually are, is not the same. Now, I don’t mean to sound pessimistic or for that to be a blanket statement by any means. This has proven to be true for me especially when it comes to determining how much I should charge. I’ve blogged about this before and to clarify just because you may charge over a certain amount does not mean you are greedy just like just because you charge under a certain amount does not mean that you are unskilled. Unfortunately, the perception that unless you charge over $25 or even $40 that you are unskilled is a very real one. As much I want to change perceptions and be one of what must be many others leading the charge against it, I still need clients and cannot expect long held perceptions to change overnight if at all. If a client is assessing my worth based off of what I charge, then I will likely have to raise my rates.

2-      Marketing a genealogy business is extremely difficult. When I started out a year ago I did not have a lot of funds for advertising and I still do not. There are an increasing number of ways to get the word out free of charge, such as Twitter or Facebook, and I have been fortunate to come across some more savy ways to market. For example, I frequently receive positive comments about the appearance of my website. It looks great but I paid less than $100 for it last year during a special put on by Apart of that fee included a  flash template, my own domain name and advertisement credits for Facebook and Google.  My business cards are from that also frequently runs specials. I give business cards to everyone and anyone. Unfortunately, I have heard “I’d love to hire you to look into my family tree but I can’t afford it” a lot over the past year. I am not sure if people are just being polite about not wanting to hire me, if they check out my competition and go with them, if it’s the area I am in, or the economy still- that’s the next marketing puzzle for me to figure out. Getting people’s attention is only half of the marketing puzzle, once I have their attention I have to keep it long enough to convince them that I am capable and qualified. I do not think it would be going out on a limb to say that second part is something a lot of transitional genealogists struggle with. It’s the old conundrum, need professional experience, but, how do you get that without someone giving you a chance to prove yourself? So far, word of mouth has been my best marketing tool. I have a client lined up as a result.

3-      Transitioning from a hobbyist to a professional is a lot like preparing for litigation. You may have done a massive amount of research- from statutes to case law and maybe even borrowing from nearby states or districts (depending on if its civil or federal) if there is no legal precedent, but if you show up to the courthouse without knowing what paperwork needs to be filed, or with incorrect citations, and do not use the proper font, font size, margins and paper weight (yes there are some courts who do specify that)… well the phrase “Do Not Pass Go, Do Not Collect $200” comes to mind.

4-      I currently have on my website that I treat every family tree as though it was my own. I may have to refine that statement.  I have been surprised at how emotionally invested I become in my client’s research. For example, the Yeager family tree that my last blog was about. My worst fear is having to tell my client bad news. Unfortunately, that is the nature of the business I am in and is something I know I will always struggle with. I know how to reign in my emotions and remain calm when delivering bad news- as a Quality Coordinator at an insurance company I frequently had to do so- but you can bet I will have ice cream waiting in the freezer for me at home.

5-      I am not alone. Hallelujah for that. There are people out there who are quick to dismiss “newbies” or anyone without a degree/certificate but there are just as many people who are helpful. Simply knowing that I am not the only one who feels the way I do has been a great relief. I feel as though a weight has been lifted off of my shoulders. It also has me thinking. I am not taking summer courses for my Masters this summer. I am going to be pursuing education in terms of genealogy- from attending workshops starting in April to something as simple as watching videos on I am also considering joining a ProGen study group. I think more of my blogs may focus on these educational pursuits and the overall challenges that I face as a transitional genealogist. I would love to become more active in supporting others in indirect ways (such as my blog) and direct ways through more involvement in the genealogy community.