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Former CIA Officer Tackles Genealogical Puzzles and Dead-Ends

Heather Nickerson, Artifcts
April 20, 2022

Since founding the company, Ellen and I have had the pleasure of meeting and working with some extraordinary individuals—artists, creators, storytellers, fashion designers, and even map makers! That said, it’s not often we meet a fellow CIA analyst turned entrepreneur. 

Ellen and I met Lisa Maddox, Founder of Family History Intelligence (FHI) early on in our journey with Artifcts, and saw an immediate fit between Artifcts and FHI. We couldn’t help but think about all that family “stuff” as we listened to Lisa talk about the families she has worked with and the histories she has helped them uncover from decades—and sometimes even centuries—ago. 

Sure enough, families, “stuff,” and histories go hand in hand. Whether it is a collection of old letters from the turn of the century or long forgotten Civil War artifacts. Those objects all represent lives lived, histories told, and the very essence of what it is to be us, to be alive. 

I sat down with Lisa for a casual conversation last month and wanted to share with you more about what makes FHI unique as it helps families preserve their legacy.  

Heather Nickerson: What led you to make the leap from CIA analyst to entrepreneur? 

Lisa Maddox: I worked at the CIA because of its mission and the powerful, impactful contributions of that work. After a successful career there, I wanted to be my own boss, determine my own career path, apply those hard-earned skills, and continue to work on issues of value. Starting my own family history business encompassed all those desires. One additional influential factor was my mother’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis. The prospect of watching my mother lose her memories impressed upon me the importance of family and our histories.  

Nickerson: How have your analyst skills come into play with family history? 

Maddox: As an intelligence officer, I often analyzed issues with information gaps and misleading data. I applied rigorous analytical techniques to overcome information gaps and understand the context and environment surrounding the subject matter. When I lacked sufficient data, I came up with innovative ways to study the issue and collect additional information. This analysis and collection approach has enabled me to tackle genealogical puzzles and dead-ends. I go beyond what a traditional genealogist would do. My work in terrorism targeting also had direct application to finding and mapping out client’s ancestors. Finally, my attention to good versus bad sources has provided a natural advantage in my genealogy research.  

I go beyond what a traditional genealogist would do.

Nickerson: Respecting your client's privacy of course, could you share with us some favorite stories of things you've discovered in your research? 

Maddox: One of my favorite projects involved discovering information about my client's father’s arrest and brief placement in a Japanese internment camp after the Pearl Harbor attack. The research spanned numerous National Archives’ holdings, prompted me to ask friends throughout the country for help, and thankfully ended up uncovering the FBI case file!

Another memorable project included the discovery of a client’s ancestors in Hungary. We thought that we had hit a brick wall, because Hungarian records are not easily accessible and language barriers presented significant challenges. This was an important moment for my business, because I didn’t accept those limitations and found a way to proceed. Employing my intelligence officer skills, I established Hungary-based contacts and facilitated on-the-ground research, which uncovered data about several more generations for this client. It was amazing!   

Nickerson: What is most challenging about your work? 

Maddox: I have found marketing to be the most challenging aspect of running my own business. After a 15-year career where I sought to draw attention away from my job and work, I have struggled to feel comfortable talking about my work and selling my services. 

Nickerson: What do you wish people knew or better understood about genealogical research? 

Maddox: I wish people understood the limitations in discovering information about more recent ancestors and family members. Clients often ask for details about their parents or even grandparents, not understanding that privacy restrictions hinder availability of information; for example, 1950 census data just became publicly available. 

Nickerson: In your experience, what is the primary motivation for someone to contact you for help with their family history research? 

Maddox: There are two driving reasons most clients contact me. One, the client seeks to discover and then preserve the family legacy for generations to come. They want the family to ask questions and discuss their heritage before it’s too late and the elder generation’s input can no longer be accessed. Two, the client wants to give the ultimate sentimental gift to their loved one (spouse, parent, or grandparent). It’s the gift of knowledge and understanding your history.  

It’s the gift of knowledge and understanding your history

Nickerson: You know all about Artifcts. How do you think Artifcts could help you in your work with your clients? 

Maddox: Artifcts' approach to understanding and preserving the stories associated with sentimental objects and possessions is an interrelated service that could naturally be woven into FHI ancestor narratives. I’ve written stories about ancestors who fought in battles and then discovered that the client’s family still possesses that old weapon, uniform, or keepsake from a battle. Embedding an Artifct would enhance the story and our understanding of our ancestors and their experiences.   

< End of interview >

We know that when it comes to our personal lives and histories “someday” often turns into never or maybe simply too late. We hope you will think about those pieces of you that should be Artifcted and archived to pass to friends and family and future generations before it’s too late. Take it one object at a time. If you get stuck, see if some of our partners and membership organizations can help you!

Interested in uncovering the origins of your family history? You can reach out to Lisa at Family History Intelligence to start the conversation. 

Photos are provided by Family History Intelligence and designed by The Scout Guide in Alexandria, VA.

© 2022 Artifcts, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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Did we miss a superpower of “why?” Let us know at Editor@Artifcts.com and we may feature your addition! 

© 2022 Artifcts, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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© 2022 Artifcts, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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