So I Married a Genealogist… and all I got was a trip to this weird conference

I am not a genealogist or family historian, however, I am married to one. Which is how I found myself at the National Genealogy Society 2018 Family History Conference in Grand Rapids, MI celebrating our 11th wedding anniversary in the absolute nerdiest way I could ever possibly imagine. It was glorious.

It was not only our first convention, it was also my first trip to Grand Rapids – a beautiful city I have every intention of visiting again as soon as the opportunity presents itself. As our anniversary treat, and thanks to the discount granted to conventioneers, we stayed at the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel which hosted the conference. When I say that it is a nice place, what I mean is that it is a gorgeous fairy tale of a hotel experience complete with an amazing view of the Grand River.

A writing room view I could get used to.

The food in this town was unbelievable. We enjoyed dining at Wolfgang Puck’s Kitchen and Cygnus 27, as well as Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse, all without leaving the comforts of the hotel. The absolute jewel of the trip, however, was a few blocks away at San Chez, where we enjoyed one of the best meals that I have ever eaten in a fun, casual atmosphere. My only regret was not going back for every remaining meal on our trip

Shrimp in a spicy banana liqueur sauce? Yes, please, may I have some more?

Wrapped within these hedonistic delights was the meat of the trip: a dizzying selection of content ranging from DNA analysis to the history of beer as seen from a genealogical perspective. When initially presented with the conference schedule I focused on sessions that appealed to my inner history buff; local color and random historical tidbits always tickle my fancy, so these seemed to be safe choices. I envisioned plenty of free time at the pool while my genealogy geek was off consuming vast quantities of methodology, research, and analysis.

I never made it to the pool. After the opening session with John Philip Coletta’s delightful talk on the Erie Canal’s impact on local family and work life, and my first breakout session Yeast, Grain, Hops, and Water: The Impact of Beer in American History, I was overcome by the spirit of the event. My schedule, initially sprinkled with just a handful of sessions, was loaded with such delights as British Miners, Riding the Rails, Native American DNA, Social Lives of our Ancestors, Problem-Solving with “Trivial Details”, and so many more.

Talking about beer all morning makes a girl thirsty.

Some sessions were more than simply informative, there were more than a few that were truly eye-opening. In Bringing Your Ancestors to Life with Archival Resources with Jo Ellyn Clarey & Julie Tabberer, I learned about thousands of missing records, registration cards for the Women’s Committee of the of the Council of National Defense, which contain valuable details on the lives, skills, and interests of female WWI volunteers. These records have been discovered in boxes collecting dust and filling decorative cabinetry in local libraries – perhaps we have ancestors lying among them. The Native DNA and Researching Indigenous Peoples lectures were particularly enlightening, each addressing topics of a sensitive nature – such as questions not to ask, terms not to use, and what it means to be Native American as opposed to simply possessing a percentage of DNA – with honesty, tact, and cold, hard facts.

Photos of the presentations were generally not allowed, but we were pretty much ordered to share this map, which can be purchased at

With so many talks, speakers, and topics to choose from, you would think that one or two would be a bust, but that was not at all the case. The speakers were all knowledgeable and well-versed in their topics, and quite clearly enthusiastic about their work. For such a seemingly dry topic as genealogy there was an undercurrent of excitement and energy throughout the week that added a spark to all of the sessions. Every speaker was willing, most were even eager, to open the floor to questions – and if they didn’t have an answer, it was not uncommon for another audience member to chime in with information based on their own experiences.

A (relatively) young pair of friendly genealogists caught in the wild.

As noted in the opening session, genealogists truly are a friendly bunch, and being surrounded by so many enthusiastic knowledge-seekers was a heady and (dare I say) nerd-tastic experience. The genealogy bug was viral and I am happy to say that I did not resist infection. In addition to the trivia and tidbits I hoped to pick up, I have also acquired an itch for historical research. Goals have been set, a plan is forming, and next year when the conference hits the shores of the Mississippi River, I hope to be there with a slew of methodology questions, an appetite for the local gastronomical delights, and a pair of comfy shoes.


My Session List:

Wednesday, May 2, 2018:

  • Coming Along the Towpath: The Erie Canal and the Peopling of the Great Lakes States, John Philip Colletta
  • Yeast, Grain, Hops, and Water: The Impact of Beer in American History, Jen Baldwin
  • English Occupation and Guild Records, Paul Milner
  • Digging for Gold: Locating British Miners and their Records, Paul Milner

Thursday, May 3, 2018:

  • From Nails to Plows: Blacksmiths and their Contribution to Midwestern Development, Annette Burke Lyttle
  • Grinding out a Living: Millers & Millwrights, Lori Thornton
  • Reconstructing the Lives of Your Farming Ancestors, Annette Burke Lyttle
  • Riding the Rails with Railroad Men, Patricia Walls Stamm
  • Native American DNA: Separating Fact from Fiction, Blaine Bettinger

Friday, May 4, 2018:

  • Save the Last Dance for Me: Discovering the Social Lives of Our Ancestors, Mary M. Tedesco
  • Native, First Nations, Indian: Researching Indigenous Peoples, Judy Nimer Muhn

Saturday, May 5, 2018:

  • Menus, Housekeepers, and First Ladies: Discovering Unique Michigan Manuscript Collections, Deborah Ann Abbott
  • Trousers, Beds, Tacks & Household Bills: Problem-solving with ‘Trivial Details’, Elizabeth Shown Mills
  • Bringing Your Ancestors to Life with Archival Resources, Jo Ellyn Clarey & Julie Tabberer
  • Michigan Homesteaders!, Shelley Viola Murphy

Paths to Your Past – NGS 2018

We just returned home from the National Genealogical Society’s 2018 Family History Conference in Grand Rapids, Michigan (lucky us! it’s held in a different city nation-wide every year). This was my first genealogy conference and I had an absolute blast. After four days of lectures and talks by the experts in the field, my mind is still churning through the massive information dump.

A few weeks before the conference I was at a family function talking about my plans to attend when a cousin (no names… to protect the innocent) said with bemused wonder, “genealogists have conferences?” I don’t remember what my answer was, but I was not entirely successful at clearing up his confusion. Elizabeth Shown-Mills’s presentation using the example of John Watts would have no doubt answered that question in spades.

We started Wednesday morning with the opening session, including John Phillip Colletta’s talk, Coming Along the Towpath: The Erie Canal and the Peopling of the Great Lakes States. (Incidentally, if you subscribe to The Great Courses or have an Audible subscription, check out his genealogy course – good stuff.) Eighteen additional sessions and four days later it was, sadly, time to go home. I was lucky enough to see presentations by many different speakers – the standouts for me were Elizabeth Shown-Mills, Thomas W Jones, Judy G. Russell, and Blaine Bettinger. I say standouts – every lecture I attended was excellent and informative – these four speakers were the most compelling of the bunch. I listed the full schedule of classes I attended at the bottom of this post.

According to the conference literature, there were over 175 lecture topics. I could have easily attended dozens more and not lost a bit of interest. Time being limited and cloning out of the available options, I did the next best thing – I brought my wife along. She went to at least a dozen additional lectures and came back full of excitement about quite a few of the topics. Stage 1 of Ensnare More Family Members Into The Genealogy Rabbit Hole is now complete.

My only real regret is not attending the luncheon and evening events. That can be easily corrected next year in St. Louis.


My schedule of sessions:

Day 1

  • Coming Along the Towpath: The Erie Canal and the Peopling of the Great Lakes States, John Philip Colletta
  • The Genealogical Proof Standard (GPS) is Your Friend, not Your Enemy, David E. Rencher
  • What Do I Really Have Here? Analyzing Sources Effectively, Ruth Ann Abels Hager
  • Using Evidence Creatively: Spotting Clues in Run-of-the-Mill Records, Elizabeth Shown Mills

Day 2

  • Digital Preservation, Eric John Wells
  • The Discriminating Genealogist: Telling Good Evidence from Bad, Judy G. Russell
  • Reasonably Exhaustive Research: The First Criteria for Genealogical Proof, Elizabeth Shown Mills
  • When Worlds Collide: Resolving Conflicts in Genealogical Records, Judy G. Russell
  • Making Good Use of Direct and Indirect Evidence, Amy Harris

Day 3

  • History, Records and Context: Researching the Locations Your Ancestors Lived, Angela Packer McGhie
  • Irish Research—Using Online Resources, Rick Sayre
  • Using Indirect and Negative Evidence to Prove Unrecorded Events, Thomas W. Jones
  • A Matter of Standards: DNA and the GPS, Judy G. Russell
  • Deeper Analysis: Techniques for Successful Problem-Solving, Elissa Scalise Powell

Day 4

  • Creating Your Personal Continuing Education Plan, Elissa Scalise Powell
  • Transcribing Documents: There is More Than Meets the Eye!, LaBrenda Garrett-Nelson
  • Evidence Correlation: Making the Most of Your Research, Nancy A. Peters
  • Inferential Genealogy: Deducing Ancestors’ Identities and Relationships, Thomas W. Jones
  • Evaluating Genealogical Conclusions Using DNA, Blaine Bettinger