All over the world there are fantastic treasure troves of old documents, photos, and items. Libraries collect or are donated items from wars, historic events, or even just ordinary people sometimes. The cool thing is sometimes your ancestors can be mentioned in these things.
Most (at least major) academic libraries have special collections somewhere in the mystical depths of their building. And lots of public libraries have them too, albeit probably on a smaller scale, depending on the library.
You can use the library catalogs to search for your ancestors’ names or for types of records or localities. Many special collections also have finding aids that you can use to find documents or items. There is a difference between searching the catalog and using finding aids. Basically, they have different information that is being searched and the finding aid will give you more detailed information on the item’s location.
Most special collections will only allow you to look at the items in a reading room so definitely bring in a pencil and paper or your laptop to take notes. You may even be able to make a copy of a page that you want, for a fee.
So what kind of stuff can you find in special collections? Letters, books, military certificates, newspaper articles. There’s a lot of stuff. A lot of random stuff too. You can use these resources to find relationships, dates of moving or military service, or cool stuff about your ancestor that you didn’t know about and which can help flesh them out as a person.
In addition to not having written a blog post in a long time, I haven’t done family history work in a little while. I got out of classes for the summer and BAM laziness. But I found that I was beginning to miss it. And, as someone who just started doing family history work a few months ago, it was kind of surprising to me. I had thought that family history was just my major and something that I felt like I should do because my mom and brother do it.
But I missed family history.
And it was even more than that. Because I had tried to look for random ancestor’s parents or find their birth date. But it was so disjointed that I couldn’t even begin to get into it and I just found it frustrating. You know what that means? The organization of a research plan actually works! Because the idea of selecting a family that needs more work done and doing a census survey then vital records and military and land and probate records makes the process seem so much less daunting than if I just dive into trying to find someone’s parents without any context or anything.
So I have a new project. And I haven’t been necessarily the best I could be at doing the research more than once a week because, remember that laziness I mentioned earlier? But it’s been fun. I’m working on a family that was born in Prussia or Germany or wherever the heck it was back then. And there is a missing father.
So I looked at the FamilySearch Research Wiki for their locality, I started looking at what records were already listed on her page, and I conducted a census survey and was able to find them in all of them (except 1890 of course). I’m still in the beginning stages but I’m on my way.
Don’t give up! Use your research processes–they work. Keep on looking for those missing fathers, brothers, sisters, and daughters. You got this.
A few blog posts ago, I mentioned the FamilySearch Research Wiki and realized that some of you may not know what that is or how you can use it. Pretty much, it will make your research easier by narrowing down what and how to search for records.
The Wiki is available on familysearch.org. Just hover over Search and select Wiki. It is a page that can be edited by anyone, but is monitored by FamilySearch. This is one of the great ways that you can find out what kinds of records are available for the locality that you are searching. It also has tips for areas of research and where to find the types of records that you are looking for.
One of the main ways that I have used the Wiki is to see when vital records were standardized or required for a specific state or county. Because it varies all over the United States (and, I’m assuming, other countries). For example, I had an ancestor that I was researching who died in 1898 in Morgan County, Utah. By looking on the Wiki, I found that death records for Morgan county are available from 1904-1964. So too late for my guy. But it also gives me research hints for pre-1904 and substitutes like the 1870 Mortality schedule.
If you are searching for information on research in a specific area, I recommend that when you are searching the place you add the word “genealogy” after the locality. It will help make sure you get to the correct page. I.e. “Morgan County, Utah Genealogy”
There are lots of other cool kinds of things on here besides just research help. For example, have you ever wanted to conduct an oral interview with one of your relatives to make sure that their stories stick around? The wiki has a page on how to conduct a good oral history interview with some possible questions you could ask and proper protocol.
There’s a page that will help you start writing your personal and family history (something I am a huuuuuggggeeee advocate of thanks to my class last semester). It will help you out with prompts and topics if you are having a hard time starting it up.
The next time you are starting on a research project, go check out the Wiki before you start doing endless searches. It could save you some time if you know that the records don’t exist then so you have to find an alternate way of learning that information.
“Why do you think people decided to carve dead people’s names in rock and put it over where they’re buried?”
My cousin asked me this the other day when we were walking through a cemetery. (That sounds creepy, I know, but we were visiting my grandpa’s grave and then decided to look around.)
I responded to her, “I don’t know, but I’m so glad that they did!”
And, boy, am I grateful. I have hinted in the past at the fact that records aren’t always available for everything everywhere all the time. Or in the case of some research you simply can’t get a hold of the records because they are in another state or country. Well, at least for death, all hope is not lost! Because waaaayyyyy back in time, someone thought it would be a good idea to carve dead people’s names in rock and put it over where they’re buried.
There’s this new fad that has been going on for a few years in the family history community and that is taking pictures of gravestones. Yes! People go to cemeteries and take pictures of gravestones and upload them onto the internet. But it’s fantastic! It allows people all over the world to find the gravestones of their ancestors and, in some cases, get vital information. The photo above is a picture I took of a gravestone to see if I was related to those people we had just stumbled across in the cemetery.
There are two major sites for the uploading and finding of graves in family history. One is Find a Grave and the other is Billion Graves. Both of them can be edited by community contributors. This allows people to add pictures and information about the people who are on the gravestone. Here is an example of a Find a Grave entry:
And here is an example of a Billion Graves page:
With Billion Graves, you have to create an account to access most of the goodies. But they have a free option, so no problem there except for maybe even more genealogy emails in your inbox than you already have. There’s a lot more on both of these sites than I have in the screenshots, so go check them out!
So what kind of information can you find on a gravestone?
Well, as you can see in the above images, they have birth and death dates. Not all gravestones will have birth dates and not all of the dates on the stones will be as specific as Roxie’s (as you can see, the gravestone for LeRoy just shows a year). You can also get relationships from gravestones, if other names are listed (and if you’re really lucky, the stone will tell you how they are related). Sometimes on the back, it will list children or spouses, if it doesn’t list them on the front.
While gravestones may not be as exciting as a death certificate, they are a good replacement. I encourage you to still look for other sources to back up or, even, contradict what is on the stone that you find. But if you don’t have a death certificate, look for a gravestone. And if you are feeling charitable, then take a trip to your local cemetery and start taking pictures to help other people on their way to finding their ancestors.
When I first started taking family history classes, I considered the census just another record (I know, after that 1890 Census blog post, it’s hard to believe I was ever so naive). I mean, it had good information on it, but it’s not like it gave birth, marriage, or death dates. And those were obviously the most important records to find out about a person.
Was my world shaken or what?
The census is the best! That is why the fact that one of the US Censuses was burned is so absolutely depressing. We were told in our class that one of the very first things we should do when we start researching is perform a census survey. Basically, you find all of the censuses that follow the person/family you are researching from their birth to death (if you don’t know when they were born or died, you can use the censuses for the general time period that you think they lived) and take down all of the information that you possibly can glean from it. The information you get from one census can help you find them in the next census back. I recommend starting with the most contemporary census. Doing a survey can help you figure out where the family was moving, how many children there were (in the 1900 US Census it shows the number of children the woman has had and how many are still living–a great resource), where the person’s parents were from, their occupation, and even if they owned a radio (1930 US Census).
But using censuses is not all peaches and cream. There are limitations. For example, censuses have not been around since the beginning of the world. The first US Census was taken in 1790 and it doesn’t give a whole lot of information. All US censuses before 1850 only listed the head of household and the number of people in each age group.
It’s hard to get a lot of information from that, but it can help track how many people and possible children they could have had. So even if your ancestors are back in the tough days of censuses, keep looking. The good news is that in 1850 they started listing all of the names of the people in the household and other relevant information.
There is the sadness of the 1890 US Census, but there are about 6,000 surviving names if you are extremely lucky. Not all censuses that have ever been taken in the US are available for viewing due to privacy for people who are still living. The most current one that you can view right now is the 1940 US Census.
Where can you find censuses? They have all been digitized and indexed and are on websites like FamilySearch and Ancestry. I prefer Ancestry for census records because it seems easier to find them and they are a really great quality. But you can use either. They are also available on microfilm in select locations like the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, UT. I’m of the opinion, though, of “Why should I leave my couch?” So I look at them online. Plus, online=searchable.
If there is a census available for the country you are interested in depends on the country. A great resource to look at to find out if there is a census for a certain country is the FamilySearch Research Wiki or Ancestry’s Red Book. Pretty much if you can find reference materials for your area of study, you can try to find out when or if censuses were taken in a country.
Off the top of my head (thanks to lots of drilling in my class), the only census that we have available for Mexico is the 1930 Census and that doesn’t include the Federal District. For the British Isles, Ancestry has censuses from 1841 to 1911. They are split up into England, Wales, Scotland, and different islands.
Just be careful when searching in England and Wales Censuses because there are a lot of common names and you need to be certain that it is actually your ancestor. I found out the hard way that there are a lot of Thomas Wests in England in 1861. Trust me, a lot. Over a thousand at least. Just use other information that you have like parent’s names, average birth year, where he/she was born, that kind of thing. And that goes for all censuses, not just the ones in the British Isles.
Census surveys aren’t always the easiest, especially since different people are reporting the information, but they are a wonderful tool for starting out. Good luck with your census surveys and all of your genealogy research!
One of the things that I have noticed in family history work is that sometimes people just find names and consider their work done. I have a name and a date. I’m good to go. They are found.
But just think about that for a second. If you were meeting someone, let’s say someone who sat next to you in class, would you look at them and ask, “Hi, what’s your name? Oh, that’s a nice name. Where and when were you born?” and then proceed to act like they no longer existed? No. Because they are a human being who you would probably try to get to know a little bit better. “What are you studying? Do you like cats or dogs better? What’s your favorite color?”
Your ancestors are people too. They lived a long time ago (sometimes a really long time ago), but they still lived. It’s interesting for me to think that my great-great-great-great grandma probably wished that she could afford more clothes or was jealous of someone else’s hair or felt lonely sometimes. Because she was a real human being with real human feelings. Emotions don’t change over time. Circumstances do. Clothing styles do.
I took a class about writing family history this semester and one of the assignments we had to do was a family history memoir. The basic idea behind the assignment was that we would research a member of our family who had already died and look for and write about a connection that we found with that ancestor. I wrote about my great-great-great grandmother who was the daughter of Mormon pioneers who settled in southern Utah. In times of struggle in her life, she would often turn to music, even making up songs to fit her current mood. This struck me deeply because I have always connected with music. And so I wrote about it. About how music can touch people’s lives and help them to get back up again when they have been knocked down by life.
If I hadn’t dug deeper into this ancestor’s past, I would not have found that way to see Mary Ellen (that’s her name) as a real human being. She would have just been another name among billions.
Do you want to be remembered as just a name? Or do you want to be flesh and blood?
It can be a hard thing to do, to find out stuff about your ancestors. A lot of records just tell you dates and places. But they also tell you relationships. Probate records can detail every possession that they had when they died. If you’re lucky, there’s a journal you can read. Ask a family member what they know about your ancestors. That’s what I do. My mom has been researching far longer than me so she knows stories that I haven’t found yet. It’s an amazing feeling and process in finding who your ancestors are.
Today’s post isn’t really about tips or tricks. It’s just something I’ve kind of been thinking about recently especially since I have a history essay due tomorrow and I am frantically trying to write it.
In many history classes that we take throughout middle and high school and college, it is all about the main parties of people and how they are affected. I felt like this was especially true in my college history classes because they were so fast-paced that it was like there was no time to focus on the individual. But that is really what I’m interested in. I understand that the groups are the people who tend to influence history, but I also want to know about the woman who had to go back to being in the home after feeling a sense of importance in the work force during World War I or II. I want to know about the husband and father who worked so desperately to earn money for his family not to starve during the Great Depression or on a farm in the Dust Bowl.
That’s what family history is. It’s a focus and a mindset on the individual. Yes, we look at whole families and use relationships to find out information about a person, but we are looking so much closer than many historians do unless they are writing a biography on someone. But even then, it’s usually a major figure. In family history, we get to focus on the people who certainly made an influence in the world, but mostly only to a select group of family and friends.
I just think it’s so cool that there is an avenue to explore the real people and what they did in their lives. Even if all you can find out about them is that they were born in Shoreditch, England in 1854. That still makes them a real person. And because of history, we can know what was happening around them as they grew up.
So next time you’re studying the Civil War, I hope you remember your ancestor who fought for the Confederacy against his uncle. Or if you’re learning about the Irish Potato Famine, remember your however-many-greats grandmother who had to watch her children go hungry and feel helpless. Because they are people and they matter. And what happened to them should never be silenced, but remembered and written about and turned into stories at the dinner table.