Getting Started Researching Family History Online

I. Remember the First Rule of Computers: Garbage In = Garbage Out

Before you sit down to the computer, you need to collect every scrap of information you can from people. The more information you have collected about your family before you start searching the databases, the more successful your computer research will be.

Two reasons:

  1. Targeting your search to the right person in the right place at the right time means you don’t get lost in a mountain of data about people who have nothing to do with your family. You need to know something about your ancestors in order to recognize the records that are related to them.
  2. Having more clues to follow means you have better chance of locating your target. Important information about your ancestors can sometimes be hidden in a record for a neighbor or distant relative.

II. What do you need to collect?

Start with names, dates and places of births, marriages, deaths of direct ancestors: these are the vital statistics that are a first step in identifying your John Smith from the 5,000,000 other John Smiths out there.

But don’t stop with just your direct ancestors. Collect data about their siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews and in-laws. Not only do relationships help you identify your target (John Smith whose sister was named Gertrude and she married George Rumplestiltskin), but they and their descendants may have collected valuable information about your common ancestors.

Keep going: details about your ancestors’ occupations, businesses, and employers; early addresses where the family lived; names of neighbors, schools, and childhood friends. Collect all the family facts, traditions, stories, and legends—they all hold clues that will help you pick your ancestors out of the crowd. Even ridiculous stories sometimes turn out to be true!

III. How do you find this stuff?

Don’t be shy: phone, email, visit, write everyone you can think of.

Give and ye shall receive. If you’re uncomfortable “tackling” a distant relative you haven’t talked to in years, send them a copy of a photograph of a common ancestor, or summary of what you’ve collected, and ask if they would have time to talk with you.

If you ask someone point blank “What can you tell me about our family?”  more often than not you’ll get a “deer in the headlights” stare in return. Don’t simply put them on the spot; prime the pump with photographs, family stories, and memorabilia to spark their recollections.

Take your older family members on “virtual tours” of their childhood homes. How to do it: Look up the old family addresses on Zillow.com and check whether the current building at the address is old enough to be the one your family lived in. If so, then take a virtual tour of the neighborhood online. Google Maps includes satellite images as well as street-level view. Bing Maps often has low-altitude images from all four compass points, letting you view a house from all sides. Be aware, though, that sometimes cities and towns change street names or street numbering; in that case, it may be necessary to “walk” around a bit to find the house or neighborhood you’re looking for.

For more tips on interviewing family, go to http://genealogy.about.com/ and do a site search for “interview.”

IV. Go on a scavenger hunt.

Gather every scrap of paper you can find:

  • –  Family Bible
  • –  old letters (that mention Aunt Trudy’s birthday or list the family address)
  • –  photographs (check the backside for written notes)
  • –  scrapbooks
  • –  diaries
  • –  school yearbooks
  • –  newspaper clippings
  • –  birth/marriage/death certificates
  • –  old deeds, wills, and other fancy certificates

V. Organize your data.

Record your data in Family Group Sheets, so you can find the information when you need it.

  • Create one Family Group Sheet for each nuclear family
    • If Grandad married twice and had children with each wife, that’s TWO Family Group Sheets. Ditto for Grandma!
  • Record all the facts as you discover them:
    • Names (including later spouses of children), Dates, Place names
    • Occupations, military service
    • Burial, Baptism, Bar Mitzvah …

For longer, more detailed stories, school-type Composition Books make great record books. The stitched binding ensures no pages fall out. Use these to record the legends and tall tales that don’t fit on a Family Group Sheet.

VI. Note your sources. Genealogy without documentation is mythology!

Get ready to learn A LOT—more than you’ll ever be able to remember. So start NOW noting the sources of the data you collect, so you know how you know what you know about your family.

Two really important reasons:

1. You are going to run into cases where you uncover pieces of information that directly contradict each other, and you’ll have to decide which “fact” is right. Was Grandad born in Cleveland or Cincinnati? How can you evaluate your facts to decide which is right if you don’t know where your facts came from?

2. You aren’t going to finish the job. You have 2 parents, 4 grandparents, 8 great-grandparents … Go back 8 generations and you’ll be searching for 256 fifth-great-grandparents. And that’s only some two hundred years ago! (OK, at some point, some of your cousins probably married, so you may only have two hundred fifty unique fifth-great-grandparents…). Let me repeat: you aren’t going to finish the job. Do your descendants a favor and let them know where you got your facts so they don’t decide they have to do the whole family tree over again because they don’t know if they can trust your research.

Genealogical Jackpots

Researching your family history in newspapers is a bit like buying lottery tickets. You hear stories about the jackpot winners and you can’t help but imagine being a big winner yourself someday. So you keep at it, scratching away at ticket after ticket, clinging to hope with nothing but $5 winners to show for it—at best, the occasional two-line death announcement when you already have the full death certificate, or the newspaper ad that you had already found in a city directory. You try to pump yourself up every time you sit down to Chronicling America or GenealogyBank, “Today is the day!” Scratch, scratch, scratch away…

My friends at the Family History Center were all excited about starting newspaper research—they’d heard all the jackpot tales. I put them off as long as I could. There are a lot more productive avenues for online research, I assured them.

But the day came when we were tired of censuses and pension files, familysearch and fold3. So what the heck—let’s have a demonstration of how time-consuming and fruitless newspaper research really is.

So we popped open GenealogyBank and I asked for a name—Ian suggested “Pachter”, and inwardly I smiled. This was going to be a good lesson in the need to think flexibly about search terms. How many different ways could OCR have misread “Pachter,” for goodness sake? I filtered the search to Philadelphia, 1900-1920, and got my trusty “Genealogy is long, tedious work” speech all prepped up and ready to go….

“Woman [Illegible] Eleven from Death in Flames…”[1]

This can’t possibly be…

We opened the image. Page 1, above the fold, right under the banner. A scrap of paper obscured a bit of the headline, but there in crisp black and white it was easy enough to make out:

“WOMAN’S [COUR]AGE [SAVES] ELEVEN FROM DEATH IN FLAMES

Carries Children Down Blazing Stair-way in Bare Feet and Rouses Slumbering Occupants of House

Through the pluck of Mrs. Rose Pachter, of 708 Buttonwood street [sic], eleven persons were saved from probable death during an early morning fire at her home yesterday. She was badly burned.

Mrs. Pachter, who occupies the second floor of the residence, with her five children, was awakened by smoke. She found the house in flames, and the bed, in which slept her five-year-old son Paul, completely enveloped by fire. Grasping the boy, she ran downstairs in her bare feet. Placing the child in the street, out of danger, she returned to awaken the other sleepers.

Her feet were scorched and her clothing ignited and she was burned about the face and body, but her injuries did not deter her. She aroused the other children, Jennie, 19 years old; David, 17 years old; Hettie, 20 years old, and May, 17 years old.

Then she ran to the third floor of the building and awakened Benjamin Cohen, his wife and their five children. All succeeded in getting out, though Jennie and May Pachter were burned about the arms, and Hettie Pachter tripped over a water pitcher, which broke and cut her right leg.

After getting the occupants out of the house, Mrs. Pachter started to fight the fire. When the firemen arrived a few minutes later they found the plucky woman, in her burned nightrobe, throwing water at the flames. The loss is estimated at $400.”

 

Rose Pachter was Ian’s grandmother.

 



[1] “Woman’ [Illegible] Eleven from Death in Flames,” Philadelphia Inquirer, 5 Sep 1910, p.1, col. 7; digital image, GenealogyBank (http://www.genealogybank.com/ : accessed 25 Aug 2013).

Little Blessings that Inspire

My ancestors were very thoughtful folks. They settled in Massachusetts and stayed there making shoes for three hundred years. Researching their family history is about as difficult as solving a Monday crossword puzzle. Researching southern families, on the other hand, is more like doing the Sunday crossword. The Times Sunday crossword. Sometimes it’s even as bad as the Singapore Straits Times Sunday crossword of 26 January 1941. That’s one where they put in the clues for one puzzle but the grid for another, and kindly printed an apology the next day: “The crossword, as published in The Sunday Times yesterday, was impossible of solution.”

“Impossible of solution.” That could be the motto for southern research. You get a family in the Deep South and dollars for donuts they became Baptists (no infant baptisms with this group!), burned down their courthouses (probate records? land records? court minutes? Ha!), and named every blasted county they lived in after the same three Revolutionary War heroes, no matter what state they ended up in. Legend has it great-grandma’s family came from Marion County? Would that be Marion in Alabama, Tennessee, Georgia, Texas, Mississippi, Florida or South Carolina?

But once in a while the genealogy fairy godmother smiles on you, and you stumble across a website like Tennessee’s Shelby County Register of Deeds at http://register.shelby.tn.us/. You’ll think you’ve died and gone to Massachusetts. I don’t know who is responsible for this website, but if there is a genealogy Hall of Honor, I have a candidate. What an unassuming little page this is! It has all the design pizzazz you’d expect from a county registrar: plenty of Helvetica and not a bit of flash. But, oh my! the databases!

Property records, Partial Indexes and Images from 1812 to present.

Birth Records 1874-1912

Chancery Court Divorce Index 1945-1997

Circuit Court Indexes 1893-2000

Death Records 1848-1962

Marriage Records 1820-1970, with Indexes/Images 1920-1989

Memphis City Directories 1849-1943

Memphis Police Blotter 1858-1860

Naturalization Records 1856-1906

Probate Court Loose Paper Index 1820-1900

Probate Court Will Book Indexes/Images 1830-1980

Did any of your ancestors happen to attend Snowden High School between 1941 and 1995? Well, you can just look up their yearbook then—every one of them is online. Know anyone who might have died in Memphis between 1853 and 1919? Check out the online images (no transcriptions here) of the Daily Burial Records for Elmwood Cemetery. Not buried in Elmwood? Then click over to the database of Gravestone Inscriptions for Shelby County, searchable as well as browsable in both pdf or tiff format.

Why, oh why can’t everybody’s family have come from Shelby, Tennessee?

So I’m thinking, what would it take to get that level of data online in my county? Heck, I don’t have any ancestors of my own down here and my research generally focuses on Alabama and points north and east, but if I can help take care of Santa Rosa County, Florida, maybe someone will be likewise inspired to take care of Marion County, Alabama/Tennessee/West Virginia/Georgia/Texas/Mississippi/Florida/South Carolina. It wouldn’t make up for those piles of courthouse ashes, but if I didn’t have to dig so hard to find the basics (or to find what basics actually survived), I’d have more time to search through those thousands of unindexed manuscripts cataloged on NUCMC and the miles of obscure Record Groups at NARA.

I might even finish one of those crossword puzzles.

Samuel Carter, Who Was Brought from Georgia

I was putting together a lesson for Saturday’s genealogy class, looking over the digital record collections on FamilySearch, when I stumbled across “United States, Freedmans Bank Records, 1865-1874.” At IGHR this past June Deborah Abbott had described the wealth of information recorded about account holders, so on a whim I clicked the link and started reading.

Boy, is she right! “Lafayette Robinson… has always lived in Huntsville… father John resides corner of Gallatin and Holmes… mother Ann died 15 or 16 years ago… brothers… step-mother… sisters…” What a gold mine! I couldn’t stop reading.

Samuel Carter’s entry brought me up short. In “Remarks,” above the X that marks Samuel’s signature, is written “Was brought away from home when so small that you don’t know parents or any of his relatives.” Samuel was living in Huntsville by the time he opened his bank account on October 1, 1867, but his bank record notes that he formerly lived in Marshall County, Alabama. There are a few more details: he turned 24 on the third of last March, he is not married, he lives in an alley between Church and Mill Street in Huntsville, his complexion is black, he works on the railroad. He attends the Baptist Church. He was born in Georgia—“Don’t know place.”[i]

I want to find Samuel’s parents.

There are a few leads. The surname Carter; lived in Marshall County, now in Huntsville; railroad; age 24 in 1867, so born in Georgia around 1843. I quickly found him in the 1870 census: now 26, working in a machine shop, born in Georgia, still single. He can read, though he can’t write.[ii] Can I find him in the Alabama State census in 1866? Yes: he’s in Marshall County. Household of one male, age 20-30. And look! Right after his name is another Carter. Jim Carter. Also a single male, age 20-30. [iii] Perhaps another clue?

Hypothesis: a slaveholder in Marshall County named Carter owned at least two males slaves, one born around 1843, and another in the same age range.

Can I find such a man in the 1860 US slave census? There are four possible candidates (all incorrectly indexed on ancestry.com as Caster or Canter): Joseph M Carter in the Eastern Division of Marshall County who owned 16 slaves, including two 18-year-old boys; Charles Carter in the Western Division who owned six slaves, including one 19-year-old and one 16-year-old boy; and two other Carters enumerated on the slave schedules immediately after Charles: Martin and Thomas, who owned one slave each, both 15-year-old boys.[iv]

I don’t have an end to the story yet. This is completely new territory for me—I’ve never researched slave records, and I have a lot to learn. That’s the danger of family history, isn’t it? These names pop out at you from the images, and they take on a life of their own and then take over yours. There are so many questions I wish but know I may never be able to answer: How did Samuel  come to work on the railroad? How had he learned to read, such a short time after the War? I discovered that Sam married and moved to Memphis, Tennessee, but haven’t found him in later censuses.[v] Why Memphis?

There are a lot of records out there I’ve yet to explore….

 



[i] “United States, Freedmans Bank Records, 1865-1874,” Huntsville, Madison County, Alabama, Record Book 1, record no. 25, Samuel Carter.

[ii] 1870 U.S. census, Marshall County, Alabama, population schedule, Township 3 Range 1 West, p. 23 (penned), p. 319A (stamped), dwelling and family 202, household of Thomas Earskin; digital image, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com: accessed 13 July 2013); citing NARA microfilm publication M593, roll 27.

[iii] Alabama State Census, 1866, Marshall County, Schedule 2 Colored Population, p. 39, entries for Sam Carter and Jim Carter; digital image, “Alabama State Census, 1820-1866,” Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com: accessed 13 July 2013).

[iv] 1860 U.S. census, Marshall County, Alabama, slave schedule, Eastern Division, p. 4 (penned), col. 1 lines 8-23, Joseph M Carter; digital image, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com: accessed 13 July 2013); citing NARA microfilm publication M653, roll number not listed. Also 1860 U.S. census, Marshall County, Alabama, slave schedule, Western Division, p. 7 (penned), p. 119 (stamped), col. 2 lines 27-34, Charles, Thomas and Martin Carter; digital image, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com: accessed 13 July 2013); citing NARA microfilm publication M653, roll number not listed.

[v] 1880 U.S. Census, Shelby County, Tennessee, population schedule, Memphis, enumeration district 148, p. 270B (stamped), dwelling 155, family 187; Samuel Carter; digital image, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 13 July 2013); citing NARA microfilm publication T9, roll 1280.

About that Family Tree…

I thought long and hard about which topic to tackle with this, my first blog. It’s not so much an issue of first impressions and wanting to make this one count, as I think it’s a safe bet that this first blog will find its readership only among those who have known me long and well. But this first blog is setting me on a path, and I want to make it a path worth my following.

So what is so important about the FamilySearch website’s Family Tree that out of all the topics I could choose, this one so quickly floated to the top and stayed there? It has to do with why family history (and I prefer that term to genealogy) is so near and dear to my heart.

Family history—the history of family. By extension, the history of community. Ultimately, the history of society and civilization. The history of human interaction, of distribution of opportunity, of collaboration and conflict. Until very, very recently, historians restricted themselves to the study of famous men and outstanding acts of vice or valor or creativity. Why? Well, the data management was just a lot easier. Think about it—how much data must one collect to understand the life of one man? Multiply that by a thousand, ten-thousand, a million…. Family history has simply been beyond the practical capabilities of historians. How can you amass, assemble, and analyze the quantity of data necessary to lay clear the patterns of interaction that shaped an entire community of individuals? Where do you store all that information while you’re collecting it? How do you make it available to the number of research historians necessary to tackle a project like understanding family history at a global scale?

This project will need some organization really big, simply to have the space to store a vast amount of detailed information, about every individual that ever left his or her name in a record, manuscript, or oral history.

Collecting and organizing this database is going to take a long, long time. We need an organization that we can count on lasting not five or ten or fifty years, but centuries.

It needs to be an open database that allows an unlimited number of researchers to contribute data and to access that data for analysis. Given the scope of this project, the number of researchers involved will need to number in the thousands. Remember, we’re not just talking about collecting vital statistics, but the raw details of everyday life that historians will need in order to understand every facet of a community’s life. Think of all those manuscript collections that languish yet unindexed and undigitized: letters, journals, newspapers, business ledgers, agency reports…

Let’s not talk about cost—but I’ll simply say that I am grateful that someone has undertaken this venture without asking me to pay for it. (OK, indexing aside.)

Yes, I’m talking about the FamilySearch.org website’s Family Tree.

I know, I know! I do know it’s full of garbage. It is the New Jersey landfill of databases. You can’t go three generations in any direction without finding enough nonsense to fill a volume of Lewis Carroll poetry.

But hold on a moment. You’re all family historians, so let me take you back to a scene from our nation’s early history:

William and Sarah Pilgrim have just topped the crest of the last hill. At the ridge line, William spreads his arms wide. “Sarah, dear, this is where we’ll make our home.”

Where would we be now if Sarah had taken one look and answered “For heaven’s sake, Bill! You’ll never get a crop on this—it’s all trees!”