Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Historical Records? What can they tell you

Family history doesn't have to be overwhelming, even though there's an endless supply of records to search. Censuses, military records and vital records are a great place to start—try one of them to get your feet wet.

Census Records

In addition to counting the inhabitants of an area, the census generally collects other vital information, such as name, age, citizenship status and ethnic background. Each census can paint an invaluable portrait of a family at a particular place and time.

Military Records
In the Military Records Collection, you can find enlistment dates, learn about famous battles, locate grave sites of war veterans and discover the unique details of military service that will help you chronicle the stories of the lives of those who served in the United States military.
Vital Records
Civil vital records—for births, deaths, and marriages—mark the milestones of our lives, and are the foundation of family history research. Chronicling the personal moments of our lives through the objective perspective of the public record, vital records can offer details often found through no other genealogical resource..
You never know which nugget of information will set you on the path to breaking down your brick walls. These research ideas can get your family tree started or launch it to a new level.

1. Start with what you know.
2. Search your home for diaries, photos and other information.
3. Interview your relatives, starting with the oldest as they aren't getting any younger and when they are gone so could your chance to gather the most interesting, informative, first hand reports about your family. Take a recorder or video tape your interview. it can become a valuble resource and addition to your history file.
4. Organize everything so you can access information easily when you need it.
5. Get ideas and a fresh perspective from other researchers.

6. Get valuable information from your extended family (such as aunts, in-laws and cousins). **See #3 for important note.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Research Hints

Reading old handwriting can be tough. Start by looking for a familiar word. Once you’ve picked out a word or two, the rest of the writing will start to take on familiar shapes. Work on one word at a time until you’ve transcribed the entire manuscript.

When reading old handwriting, an f that drops below the line is really an s. That is way the s was written then. A double ff in a word also means an s. However, a double ff at the beginning of the word is an F. The best rule, be flexible whenever you see any f.

Names were often spelled as they sounded and each man responsible for recording those names had a different idea how to spell what he heard. An example is Orbaugh being recorded as Arebaugh.

Keep a record of all nicknames, middle names and initials for men and women. Men may be known by their middle name until they reach maturity, then switch to their first name. People also used nicknames instead of their first names, even for legal documents.

Jr. and Sr. aren’t always used only to indicate a father and son with the same name. They were also occasionally used to differentiate between a younger and older man with the same name living in the same region, even if they weren’t related. If men with Jr. and Sr. are listed on consecutive lines on a list, I indicate this in my records and make a note that they are probably son and father. If they are listed far apart, I note the adjective in my file with the information that it may not indicate a family relationship but merely an age difference with another man with the same name in the community.

The Federal Census is a great resource, but transcribing its information can be a nightmare without pre-printed forms. You can download these forms for free (see Census Forms in Links on the right.)

Alphabetical listings aren’t always accurate. A name starting with T might be listed in the W’s or in the K’s. It’s random and strange. I read the entire list to be certain my ancestor hasn’t been misfiled or that his name hasn’t been misspelled.

If you’re researching a surname that begins with I, it is frequently included with H’s or J’s in alphabetical listings.

In lists organized by months, such as marriages or births, check at the end of the year to see if anything was added that was filed late. Also check at the beginning of the following year for the same reason.

Extra names were added at the end of lists for people who filed their taxes late, so check after the Z’s to see if there were any late additions.

Men who jointly owned property would be listed together in tax records, such as Maggart and Jones. If you are researching Jones, you’ll miss him unless you search the entire list.

Ordinaries, or pubs, were listed at the very end of the annual tax records. Check there to see if your ancestor was in the bar business.

When you visit courthouses for research, they may offer the service of photocopying some documents, such as deeds, marriage records, etc. Check the copies before you leave to be certain they are correct. Yes, I made this mistake once.

Photocopying old documents should never be attempted and is in fact not allowed in many repositories because of the damage caused by the machine’s light. The flash on cameras also damages documents. However, certain types of digital cameras take excellent photos of documents in low light without a flash. Test your camera before attempting this. Remember—you must be able to completely disable the flash.

Record everything you find in a document. My personal exception to this rule is deeds. I don’t record the measurements (Starting at the white oak and extending . . .) I only note references to neighbors, rivers, mountains, etc, contained within the measurements. You’ll need to decide about this issue yourself.

On documents that are impossible to read because they’re too dark or too light, scan them into your computer. Adjust the grayscale brighter or darker. Turn it into a negative image. If you can find a way to view it in ultraviolet light, this technique will bring up very faded script. This scanning method is usually only found in high-tech labs, however, at museums that restore valuable old manuscripts.

When using a microfilm machine at a library, the area allocated for taking notes is usually limited. Have paper and pencil on hand in case there’s no room for your computer.

Most microfilm machines allow patrons to print selected pages of the film they are viewing. However, recently I was able to download my selected pages onto my flashdrive. So now, in addition to bringing paper, pencil, and computer do to your research, remember to bring along your flashdrive in case your library has gone high-tech.
By Kathy Jones-Kristof | August 15, 2008

#2 in a Series of 3 About Tombstones and Cemeteries

Cemeteries are wonderful places to research Family History, as I discussed in Tombstones, Our Ancestors’ Monuments to Genealogy Research, my first post in this series where I gave examples of the many things that can be learned from tombstones. Even if you’re lucky enough to know the name of your ancestor’s Cemetery, finding it can be an archaeological task worthy of Indiana Jones, especially with lost family cemeteries or towns that have changed names or disappeared completely. However, as always with Genealogy, the rewards can be well worth the effort, so cue the theme music and our search is on!

The first thing you need to know to find your ancestor’s Cemetery is where your ancestor died. This comes from your Family File. Your research will have revealed either exactly when and where your ancestor died from a county death record or you should’ve been able to ascertain the location of your ancestor’s last known residence from tax lists and land deeds. In the latter case, you may be hoping that your ancestor’s tombstone will give you her/his date of death.

The next step is to discover the name and location of your ancestor’s Cemetery. Death Certificates are the best places to find Cemetery locations—see my post In the Beginning on how to find death certificates. Next best source, family interviews and your family’s papers, which may include Cemetery deeds or funeral papers. Something I’ve found extremely useful is funeral home Memorial Folders, which are given out at wakes and usually kept by families in memory of loved ones. These list place of interment or burial, along with other valuable family information.

Another valuable source of Cemetery names and locations is funeral homes themselves. Obituaries include the name of the funeral home handling the “arrangements,” which includes the burial. Call them and see ask where the burial was, along with any other information they have on file, no matter how old the obituary may be. If they’ve gone out of business, call the county or other local mortuaries and ask where the defunct funeral home’s records were transferred.

Check with the church where your ancestor’s funeral was held. Not only do a lot of them have their own Cemeteries, but they may have a record of where your ancestor was buried after the service.

If you know the name of your ancestor’s Cemetery but not its exact location, only the state or county, you have a lot of options. Call information. The Cemetery may be one of those nicely manicured places with an office and full-time staff. If so, the tombstone isn’t your only option for information. The office has a file on who paid for the grave, the burial and the headstone. That’s valuable information you should collect, too.

No phone number? Get online with the US Board on Geographic Names (USGS) which has the exact location of many Cemeteries, both big and small. Input Cemetery for Feature. Search Google for your Cemetery’s name. Call city and county clerk or tax offices. Contact area funeral homes and churches. Ask not only if your ancestor’s Cemetery is located in their community, but also if they have interment lists and can confirm that she/he is indeed buried there.

If you can’t find any trace of the Cemetery, it may have changed names. If it’s a small cemetery, it may be known locally by a different name than what you have listed in your files. The name of the town may have changed, too. Check place name books and the USGS, this time inputting the name of the town for Feature. A church may have changed denominations, causing its attached Cemetery to be more difficult to find. Roads and buildings frequently create the need—which I deplore—for graves to be moved. There have been cases where small, abandoned Cemeteries were simply bulldozed over before a community could have a construction project stopped long enough to have the graves moved. Consider all these possibilities in your search, whether you know the name of your Cemetery or not.

Next, finding your ancestor’s Cemetery when you don’t know its name.

Your research should have revealed if your ancestor lived in a town or on a farm. This will make a difference in where you look for their Cemetery. Farm ownership will mean they were most likely buried on their own land. Town dwellers would have been buried in a group cemetery in or near the town. Alternatives to both of these would be church cemeteries.

The first place to look for information is, as always, the Internet. Search Google for the community and county where your ancestor last lived to see if any Cemeteries or burials are listed. Remember that the majority of this information is transcribed data. Very few websites contain photos of actual tombstones. I’m hesitant to use transcribed data because it may contain errors, plus the original viewer of the gravestone may have missed clues about your ancestor (see my first post in this series) that won’t be included in the transcription. Use this type of transcribed information only as a clue to help you find valid, verifiable data—not as actual Fact.

If you’re unable to visit your ancestor’s Cemetery in person and must rely on Internet resources, look for websites where a transcription includes the researcher’s name, the date of the Cemetery visit and its exact location. This indicates that the researcher has done more than just the minimum amount of work and has strived to provide accurate information.

In reference to the websites with photos of tombstones, this eliminates the transcription problem, but does create the problem of possibly missing valuable Cemetery information if there are family stones nearby. However, once again, if you are unable to visit the Cemetery in person, these websites are an excellent resource.

Your next step in finding your ancestor’s Cemetery is contacting the same places you should’ve written while originally researching your ancestor; genealogical societies, local historians, libraries, etc. This time, add churches and funeral homes to the list. Tell them you’re searching for where your ancestor’s buried and need a list of local Cemeteries, including those on old farms or private Cemeteries. If they have interment lists, ask them to check for your ancestor.

Contact the current owner of your ancestor’s land to see if there’s a graveyard. Check with neighboring landowners. Several homesteads may have shared a burial site.

Other ways to locate abandoned Cemeteries is via topographic maps, tax maps, utility company survey maps, town plans, plat maps, and burial registers in county and city offices. Most public libraries, college and university libraries, as well as state, county and federal offices have map collections you can access, and you can buy topographic maps of the area you’re researching. I’ve even found old country Cemeteries on MapQuest by looking along roads in a community.

Once you’ve arrived at the area where your ancestor lived, if you still aren’t sure where the Cemetery is or if there is one, you still have options. Ask old people in the community. Go to a sporting goods store that sells hunting supplies and find out who the hunters are in the area. They’ve been tramping around the woods in that region for years and probably know where every Cemetery is for fifty miles.

And finally, the way that’s worked best for my cousin and me, drive around the area close to where your ancestor lived and ask people if there’s an old Cemetery nearby. I’ve had total strangers leave their yard sale and lead me several miles to a turnoff to a Cemetery. I’ve walked into a church building project and been invited to share their potluck lunch while the congregation finished eating before someone could lead me to the road I needed. Once, my cousin and I were taken into a woman’s home, offered iced tea and told to wait while she called someone who not only gave us directions to our ancestor’s Cemetery, but also the nearby address of a member of our family we’d never known about, who I immediately interrogated—I mean questioned—about anything he could add to our family’s history.

Unfortunately, he was unable to provide us with any meaningful information. He’d spent most of the day cutting hay and was now relaxing in a way that made his concentration illegally unfocused. He tried to be helpful, but the only thing we learned was that he kept the Cemetery where our mutual ancestors were buried neatly mowed and he didn’t have any photos of the people buried there—probably.

Okay, now you know how to find your ancestor’s Cemetery and, from the first post of this series, all the wonderful things you can learn from a Tombstone. Next time I’ll tell you what to take with you to the Cemetery and how to take the best possible photos of those weathered, almost unreadable stones. Check back soon!

Can't find your family in the census?

Leonis or Lewis? Some Quick Tips for Finding Your Ancestors in the Census

By Jana Lloyd 05 August 2007

In the 1900 census on Ancestry, my great-grandfather is listed as Leonis J. Lloyd. The problem? His name is Lewis John Lloyd.

Ancestry uses a thorough process to make sure its indexes are as accurate as possible; however, mistakes occasionally creep in.

Understanding why these mistakes are there and what to do about them can keep you from missing ancestors in your search.

There are two main reasons why mistakes enter the census indexes. The first has to do with census takers, or enumerators. The second has to do with census transcribers.

Think about it. If you were a census taker in 1880, your purpose was to gather statistics about the nation’s population and economy. You wouldn’t have known that your records would be used for family history years later.

Enumerators spelled names phonetically, used initials or abbreviations (“Jno.” for “John” is a common one), Americanized foreign names, or just plain misheard and incorrectly wrote names.

The second place where errors occur is not in the past—it’s in the present, with the transcribers.

Transcribers are hired to read the old census records and record the names for online indexes. Transcribers are trained on common handwriting conventions of the time. Their transcriptions are also tested for accuracy. But, sometimes mistakes still happen.

So what can you do to make sure you locate ancestors whose names might have been misspelled by an enumerator or misread by a transcriber? These searching tips can help:

  • Search using abbreviations, variations, foreign translations, phonetic spellings, and even nicknames—remember your ancestors may have given the enumerator a nickname rather than their full name.
  • Use initials. In some instances, enumerators only recorded initials—not full names.
  • Reverse the given name and surname. Sometimes enumerators mixed them up.
  • Eliminate a given name or surname and try narrowing the search by using other criteria, such as location and birth/death years.
  • Substitute letters that are commonly mistaken for other letters by transcribers, such as:
    S and L
    T, F, J, and I
    K and R
    P and R
    O and Q
    U and W

  • Conduct a wildcard search using an asterisk “*” or a question mark “?” The asterisk represents zero to six characters and the question mark represents one character.
    For example, a search for “Fran*” would return “Fran,” “Franny,” “Frank,” “Franky,” etc. A search for “Johns?n” would return “Johnsen,” “Johnson,” Johnsan,” etc.
    Note: You must include the first three letters of a name before any wildcard character.

  • Search for other members of the family (or even neighbors if you can figure out who they were from other census records).
  • Search only for a location and scan through the records for a town or county page by page. This can be time-consuming but worth it.

Was Abraham Lincoln a sawyer or a lawyer? The capital letters “L” and “S” often look alike in nineteenth century manuscripts.

Are you sure you learned how to spell Mississippi correctly? In the nineteenth century, the double "s" was often penned as something that looks like a lowercase “f” or “p” to us.

Let’s go back to my great-grandfather Lewis. In his case, the error in the index was not one person’s fault; the enumerator and the transcriber both made errors.

Look at the original census record; the enumerator recorded his name as “Louis.” Obviously, he didn’t bother asking about the spelling.

The enumerator’s handwriting was also difficult to read. Years later a transcriber saw the name “Louis” and read “Leonis.”

Look closely and you can see how a transcriber saw “Leonis” instead of “Louis.”

Fortunately, in spite of these errors I was still able to locate Lewis. I found him by searching for his father—John Lloyd—and entering the location where I knew his family was living—Canon City, Fremont County, Colorado.

If you find a name mis-transcribed in census records, help out future researchers by submitting a correction to Ancestry. These corrections are collected and periodically updated.

You can submit a correction by clicking the “Comments and Corrections” link that appears in the “Page Tools” box next to any record on Ancestry.

Ancestry will not correct what an enumerator wrote—only what a transcriber mis-recorded. So, Ancestry would index my great-grandfather’s entry under “Louis Lloyd,” but not “Lewis Lloyd.”

If a correction is accepted, it will appear as an alternate name in brackets under the original transcription. A comment icon will appear beside it with information about the error and who contributed the correction.

Jana Lloyd is editor of the Ancestry Monthly newsletter. She can be reached at but cannot assist with personal research questions.