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.
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!
Okay, so when I first started experimenting with family history, I was told to get RootsMagic as a way to create a pedigree. When I first began, it seemed really weird and out of date and I honestly didn’t love it.
Fast forward a year, a program like RootsMagic was required for this family history class I’m taking in order to create Family Group Records and the like. Because everyone else was using RootsMagic and it was the program that all the professors used at my school, I decided to try it again. I still didn’t like it.
But at RootsTech, I went to a presentation about RootsMagic. Granted, a lot of it was people asking about basic stuff that I already understood, but it at least made me want to give it another shot.
So this time, instead of transferring all the copious amounts of chaos and information from FamilySearch into my RootsMagic file, I started the pedigree by myself. I input all of the information that I had and then continued to input more as my research continued. It was amazing! FamilySearch is great because of collaboration and such, but when I’m first starting out, I need to be more organized than the tree is on FamilySearch. I suddenly felt like I was actually making progress.
So what are some cool things about RootsMagic? (I promise I am not getting any promotional thing from this. Just so you know.) For one thing, they can help you with citations, which is always welcome. There is also this cool view, called “Family” view, which allows you to see all of the family with a list of siblings.
There are also hints that can connect to FamilySearch, Find My Past, and MyHeritage (they’re those little light bulbs in the image above). And, they are working on hooking up with Ancestry as well. (The secrets you learn at RootsTech…) If you buy the full version, you can “memorize” a citation and put it in all of the people or records that the citation is the same for.
Basically, I at least encourage people to try the free version. And if it doesn’t work for you, go out there and find something better!
So you know a bunch of facts about your ancestor. He was born in England but immigrated to the United States. He was a farmer in Utah and had nine children. And these facts are great, especially if you are trying to find out who his parents were or if there is a missing child in the mix. But what about trying to understand the people that you are researching and what their lives were like. This is where historical sources come in.
I’m not talking about your run-of-the-mill county histories. I mean peer-reviewed sources. Why am I writing about this right now? Because historical sources are a part of the Compiled Lineage and Proof Summary that I have due on Thursday and I don’t have any yet. (Ah, college…)
First off, just thinking about what you could look for in historical background can be really overwhelming. There are a lot of things that comprise a person’s life. I would start by looking at all of the facts that you have, where they took place, and what kind of topics you could look into for more information. Then make a list. I am a big believer in lists because my mind cannot focus on all the things running around in there. If you make a list, you have a solid list of topics that you can start to search through until you find something that works and fits your ancestors and/or research paper. These topics can be huge ideas like immigration or about things like family life in Iowa in the 1870s. You can search seriously anything that you want to learn more about.
Once you have some topics, it is hard to even begin to think where to look for the actual articles and books. You can try a few general searches in your local library’s catalog for books that have that topic. That can lead to a lot of great results. Another good tactic is using databases. This can be hard for those of you who aren’t going to school like me, but I would check to see if your local library has subscriptions to any databases that you can use on their premises. Or if you live near a college you can check to see if they allow patron use on the computers. Family history centers may also be a viable option. Two great databases that I have been made aware of are “America: History and Life” and “Historical Abstracts.” “America: History and Life” focuses on articles about the United States and Canada and “Historical Abstracts” focuses on everything except for the United States and Canada. So depending on where you are researching, you’re going to want to use different databases.
In searching, it can be important not to search too specifically in these databases. They aren’t like Google. So if you want to know what type of farming took place in northern Utah in the late 1800s, you can’t just search for that verbatum. The search engines don’t work like that. Try typing in something like this:
or even something like this:
It gives you a lot of options to look through, but not too many. In this list, there are articles like “The ‘Americanization’ of Utah’s Agriculture” and “Interdependence and Change: Mutual Irrigation Companies in Utah’s Wasatch Oasis in an Age of Modernization, 1870-1930,” which are worth looking through.
Another example: I have heard in the process of researching a family for my class that where my ancestor was living at the end of his life was the sheep capital of Utah. So if I wanted to back that up with historical evidence, I could do a search like this:
It’s definitely a weird search and kind of random, but it yielded an article called “Grazing in Utah: A Historical Perspective” that I could look at to see if it mentions where my ancestor was living.
Research is not an easy process, as you all know if you have done even a little family history work. It takes a lot of trying different things until you find what you are looking for. But I would say to not have too specific ideas in mind. I have noticed sometimes in my own research that when I am looking for something incredibly specific, it can make it even harder because I ignore other options that don’t look like they would have what I would want, but actually might contain some interesting stuff. So keep an open mind and good luck with all your research!
Or they can be. If your ancestors left behind a probate record, count yourself among the extremely lucky. Because those things are beast.
I used to think that death records meant death certificates. That was it. You could find a record that told you when your ancestor died and, if you’re really lucky, cause of death. (Death certificates are also good for finding out information like birth and stuff if there isn’t a record for that event available.) But there is so much more!
So I already mentioned probate records, so let’s talk about that. So probate records can include all sorts of things and they are usually several pages long. In fact, they are called probate files. Probate is the legal process of how to distribute goods of a deceased person. In probate files there is the will (which has to do with real property) and testament (personal property) and can also include an inventory of all the worldly goods of that person, and affidavits of people stating that they received their fair share of the inheritance. Unfortunately, if your ancestor died intestate (without a will), there probably won’t be a probate record for them.
My professor told us that when looking for probate records, it’s better to search broadly and that sometimes, there can be decades between when the person died and when the probate record was filed. So search many years out if you aren’t finding anything close to when your ancestor died. It’s always good to start with an index of the probate records before you start sifting through them. Otherwise, if your ancestor doesn’t have a probate record at all, or at least not one in that collection, you would have wasted a lot of valuable time.
Other records that can replace death certificates are funerary records or burial records. These often state when the death occurred and the burial as well. Funerary records are found at the funeral home where the person was laid to rest.
So even though your ancestors are dead, you can learn so much about them from the records that their death left behind.