Category: Genealogy

April 23rd, 2014

Sifting Through City Directories to Find Your Urban Ancestor

The United States grew rapidly from a colonial society of farms and villages to a nation of massive urban centers. Many new immigrants congregated in seaports along the Atlantic coast, and the largest of those towns often became centers of commerce and government. The wealth of these cities attracted a constant influx of immigrants, as many became hubs of industry such as shipbuilding, manufacturing, or milling. If your ancestor went to where the money was, you might be able to find out about them in a city directory.

Placing an ancestor in a particular time or place is invaluable to a genealogist, and city directories can accomplish that. There is much more information they can provide however, and they shouldn’t be overlooked as a go-to genealogical resource. They can inform us of where our ancestor worked, where they worked, and sometimes even identify vital events like death or marriage, as well as migrations. City directories also give valuable insight into a community, sometimes providing information about the schools, hospitals, churches, cemeteries, associations, clubs, societies, and organizations in particular neighbourhoods.

Those of us conducting research in urban areas are fortunate to have such a valuable, extra resource, especially one that can be so forthcoming with genealogical data. Some of the particular information you can find in them are;

  • Name and occupation of head of household
  • Name of spouse (usually listed in parentheses after the name of husband)
  • Names of children, usually only those working outside the home
  • Street name and house number of residence
  • Occupation of head of household
  • Work address

Where to Locate City Directories

Most state archives and libraries have original directories as well as city directories on microfilm. State and local historical and genealogical societies are also an excellent place to look, especially those that have libraries and cover a particular location. National and major regional libraries such as the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah, and the Library of Congress in Washington D.C. also have large collections of city directories. The American Antiquarian Society also maintains vast collections of microfilmed city directories, for many locations across the United States.

More and more city directories are being digitized and made available online every day; the Library of Congress collection for instance now contains over 12,000 directories from across America. Two other website that are useful are Online Historical Directories which contains a listing of every available online historical directory in the United States as well as some international listings, and US City Directories which identifies printed, microfilmed, and online United States city directories and their repositories.

For city directories in the United Kingdom, the University of Leicester in England, offers an excellent collection of digitized local and trade directories for England and Wales for the period 1750–1919 on their website, the Historical Directories Searchable Library.

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April 16th, 2014

Shameful Staff Destroy Over 1,800 Military Records of Veterans

With all of the tireless volunteers around the world striving to find and preserve genealogical records, it is heartbreaking to discover that employees of the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis consider genealogical records nothing more than trash to be discarded in order to receive an incentive bonus. That’s right, rather than making an effort to file the records quickly and efficiently to earn their bonus, several employees of the Center have admitted to destroying them instead.

The National Personnel Records Center is the repository for millions of health, medical, and personnel, records of deceased and discharged veterans of all service branches during the 20th century. The Center also houses and manages the records of dependents and others who have been treated at medical facilities operated by the US military.

It was discovered last year that two employees, Stanley Engram, 21, and Lonnie Halkmon, 28, were responsible for deliberately misfiling or destroying more than 1,800 records. The situation was discovered after an audit was conducted on the records filed by employees at the Center during 2011 and 2012. Most employees had an error rate of approximately 3%, however a half dozen had disproportionately high error levels, Engram and Halkmon the worst. An investigation by the state revealed that employees were destroying the records, or stashing them in order to increase their productivity levels in order to receive bonuses.

The audit and investigation began after 241 records were found in the woods near the Center. The Social Security numbers on the documents traced the records back to Engram who admitted he had disposed of the records in the forest, and had destroyed some at his home as well. In total he told investigators that he had destroyed or misfiling more than 1,000 of the valuable military documents himself. Both individuals pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of destruction of government records and on Thursday, January 30, 2014, Lonnie Halkmon was given a sentence of two years of probation and 40 hours of community service. Engram had pleaded guilty and awaits sentencing.

Many feel the sentence handed down to Halkmon was too light, especially by those who are researching their ancestry. One reader on the website of Jonathan Hurley, a nationally recognized legal scholar, commented, “To read that someone would destroy and stash records that some families have been searching for is disturbing. I do think these defendants were undercharged. They may have wittingly or unwittingly robbed many families of a history of their loved ones that they may not be able to recover.”

It really is incredibly that someone could willfully destroy government properly and get a slap on the wrist. What do you think? Was the sentence handed down by U.S. Magistrate Judge Nanette Baker too lenient? Feel free to leave a comment below, and if you would like to see what others are saying, you can visit the Jonathan Hurley Blog.

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April 2nd, 2014

Hitting on Those Hard to Find Clues in Obituaries

Obituaries are one of the first resources that budding genealogists consult when setting out on the journey to discover their ancestral roots. Most however limit themselves to the actual printed matter and don’t glean all of the possible information they could, or spot the hidden clues that an obituary contains. There is much more to an obituary than merely finding the names of ancestors that are written within it; there are genealogical stones to be turned over that can reveal much more than might be indicated on the surface!

How to Spot Genealogy Clues
The name of the deceased and their survivors, as well as name places and dates are the obvious genealogical data that you can get from an obituary. Within the accompanying data however, there are genealogical clues that can lead you further in tracing your family tree. Let’s take an example of an obituary for a woman who died in El Paso, Texas. In addition to her personal data, the obituary also contains information such as; she was single, her parents founded and operated a small city hotel, she was a school counsellor, she was stationed at El Paso High School, the names of five surviving relatives, the name of a special friend, and where the funeral will take place.

Can you spot any of the clues that might lead you to other ancestors? One would be the hotel founded by her parents. You could check business and employment records to check for other family members that may have been involved in what was most likely a family business. You would also want to check census records and city directories for the names of those surviving relatives mentioned; most likely some will have a spouse, children, or even grandchildren that aren’t mentioned. You might also want to look into the name of the special friend. Who were they, and why were they special to the deceased?

Obituaries – Much More Than Just Death Notices
The first thing we associate with an obituary is the death of someone. Many people even call them death notices. They are much more than that however, as many provide a mini-biographical sketch of the individual. Some obituaries can even be as long as an entire newspaper page, revealing almost a complete life’s history. Most newspaper obituaries are not that long, in fact, sometimes there is no obituary for a person. In such a case, you can check other sections in the newspaper that may document the death.

You might find information on your ancestor in an article; especially if they’re death was accidental, a funeral notice, a thank you note from the family, or even in the legal section. Notices of claims against a deceased person’s estate are printed in local newspapers so that creditors may claim against the estate if they were owed money at the time of death. In the case of accidental death, or if a person died in suspicious circumstances, a coroner’s report or court records may exist.

Expand Your Search
If you know the death date of the ancestor you are researching, that is a good place to begin. Don’t limit yourself to that date though, as obituaries are normally printed at least a day or two after the event. Even after finding the obituary, expand your research to a week or two on either side of the death date. In old newspapers, especially in small communities, they would sometimes print the names of those who were sick, and occasionally print the street addresses as well.

Obituaries are a good genealogical resource with which to “get your feet wet.” Don’t let their simplicity fool you though, look for those hidden clues that may take you further in your quest for other ancestors. As always, keep in mind that obituaries are secondary sources of genealogical data, and you will have to find primary source data to confirm any information you glean from them.

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March 19th, 2014

Don’t Just Find Genealogical Facts – Analyze Them!

Of course when we’re researching our ancestors, our initial goal is to find fact about them and their life. Unfortunately, many beginning genealogists stop with those facts. They write them down into their family tree or family group records and file them away, never learning much about their ancestor except their vital statistics. There is so much underlying information in any facts we find however, we just need to understand how to analyze the data so that it unveils the story beneath.

For example, let’s say your great-grandfather was a cattle rancher in the early days of Wyoming. Rather than simply write that down as “occupation” beside his name in your family group sheet, why not dig a little deeper and research what was involved in cattle ranching in Wyoming in the 19th century. Were there licenses to be applied for, brand registration of some sort? Maybe your great-grandfather took out a loan to finance his business. In that case, there may be bank records that exist.

Such documents can not only help you to find other documents that may lead to other ancestors, but help to paint a picture of the type of man your relative was, and some of the challenges he or she may have faced in their lifetime. Thus, when you are telling someone about your ancestor, or writing about them, you can do so in much more detail, bringing them alive with that extra information.

  • Build a Timeline. A really effective method of putting your ancestor’s life into context is to create a timeline for their life alongside a parallel timeline for local, national, and world history. Understanding that your ancestor survived the Great Famine of Ireland, or struggled through the Great Depression, not only provides you with a deeper knowledge of them, but of the time period as well.
  • Make Use of Maps. Maps can be both useful and fun to incorporate into a genealogy project. Not only can they provide you with an appreciation of the area in which your ancestor lived, but you can also map out their travels if they were immigrants. Pay attention to where they may have stopped during their journey, as they may have stayed with other relatives. One way to find out for sure is to check census records in the area for the time period that your ancestors were there.
  • Use Historical Photographs. Whenever you are researching an ancestor in a particular area it is a good idea to at least have a look at a few historical photographs of the area, and the era. Sometimes the only clue you might have will be a photograph. In such a case, look closely at the clothes they wear, as fashion can indicate what era the photograph was taken in, and can give you a date range in which to search for records.

Finding genealogical facts is fun, but expanding on those facts to explore your ancestor’s personality and life circumstances is what genealogy is really all about. After all, we set out to find where and who we came from in order to better understand who we are. A book full of data won’t do much to answer that, but sifting through that data to uncover the person behind it most certainly will. Happy ancestor hunting!

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February 19th, 2014

Potential Problems with Indexes, Images and Transcripts

The three main ways that you’ll find data represented on the internet are through images, indexes and transcriptions. Images are usually scanned original documents, a transcription will hold the full textual content of the document in a file, while an index will contain a list of names with or without additional details regarding its members, and may direct you to where the original document is held.

An online index would ideally lead you to a full transcription of the original document you seek, which could then be compared against a scanned image of the original. But we don’t live in a perfect world, and in spite of the great technological progress we’ve made, digital images take up a lot of disk space and bandwidth, and so are rarely found online. It is simply more financially feasible to provide text only data, for both free websites run by volunteers, and commercial sites. Images can, and are supplied economically for census returns however, as there is a massive demand for them, which in turn covers the cost of providing them.

Believe it or not, as rare as images of original documents are on the internet, transcriptions are even harder to find. It takes much time, and major effort to prepare a transcription, and for many documents it is not really required. Indexes that are connected or linked to images are therefore the major source of most genealogical data to be found on the internet. Keep in mind, especially if you’re a beginner, that you can’t accomplish all your genealogical research on the internet. It is a valuable tool, but everything you find will eventually have to be authenticated by checking it with the original source. Let’s take a look at some of the potential problems you might experience with indexes.

Potential Index Related Problems

The majority of indexes on the internet today are made available through the valuable contributions of time and resources by other genealogists. Often working from micro films or digitized versions of original documents, it is understandable that information is sometimes transcribed inaccurately. Ideally indexes would be created by professional palaeographers, with an excellent knowledge of place names and surnames, but this is not true even on large scale projects, whose data is usually transcribed an input by clerical workers.

Data validation is also an area of concern when browsing indexes on the internet. Of course it is much easier to check the authenticity of twenty first or twentieth century records than that of those of previous centuries, so unfortunately validation has been overlooked by some projects. The “the let’s don’t and say we did “attitude has led to the critical failure of some indexes, and consequently many genealogist’s family histories. Unfortunately many spelling errors and typos are made when transcribing, and unfortunately these mistakes end up being published. I have come across surnames with numbers in the middle of them, misspelled surnames, and even gender misidentification; one website had over one thousand female Johns in its index.

These are some of the things you’ll want to look out for when using an online index, and the reason that online information should always be verified via comparison to the original documentation. On a positive note, the greatest value of an index is that it can tell you where to find that original document.

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January 1st, 2014

Jamaica: Land of Food, Water, and Relatives

Jamaica is known as the land of food and water, but few realize that Jamaicans, according to national census records, are the third largest West Indian immigrant group in the United States, and the largest in Canada. The United States Census of 2000 reported that 736,513 Americans claimed Jamaican descent; the 2001 Canadian census revealed that 211,720 Canadians did the same. New York is the preferred destination of Jamaican immigrating to the United States; those moving to Canada prefer Toronto.

The number of Jamaicans that have immigrated to the US and Canada may be even greater however, as prior to the 1960’s, all immigrants form the Caribbean were classified as a single group and categorized as West Indians. Such a generalization makes it impossible to determine the number of Jamaicans who immigrated to North America before that time. It is estimated that approximately 100,000 Jamaicans immigrated to America between 19o0 and 1924. After the Second World War began, around 40,000 Jamaicans were recruited to do work that supported the war effort, though many returned home at the war’s end.

When Jamaica gained its independence it qualified for an increased immigration quota, and between 1922 and 2002, the average amount of Jamaican immigrating to the US averages around 16,000 per year. In Canada, mass Jamaican immigration didn’t begin until the 1970’s, and of the 120,000 Jamaicans registered as living in Canada at that time, over 100,000 had arrived post 1970. The Jamaicans who immigrated to the United States and Canada were generally well educated, and most achieved greater economical and social success than other immigrants of African heritage. US Secretary of State Colin Powell is perhaps the most well known public figure of Jamaican descent.

How to Find Jamaican Relatives

After reflecting on those figures a bit, I couldn’t help but think that there are many individuals who may appreciate knowing where to find resources for tracing Jamaican ancestry. I did a bit of research and found a few very valuable websites that may be of immense help to the Jamaican family historian.

Jamaican Family Search Research Library – This site is a actually what it says it is – a virtual genealogy library for anyone researching their Jamaican heritage, especially for individuals born before 1920. The website contains transcriptions from a variety of documents including 19th century Jamaica Almanacs listing property owners, civil and military officials), Jamaica Directories for 1878, 1891 and 1910, Civil Registration, Wills, selected extractions from Jamaican Church records, Jewish records, and excerpts from books, newspapers, and other sources. There is also a wealth of information on immigration and slavery.

Jamaica Archives and Records Department – This is the site of the official National Archives of Jamaica, and they have an entire section dedicated to genealogy research. There are two major sources of information here – Parish registers and Church Collections and they provide information on baptisms, marriages, and burials. You will also find deeds, adoption records, as well as Slave registers, estate inventories, and plantation records.

LDS Family History Centers – The Family History Library of the LDS (Latter Day Saints) Church has amassed a great collection of Jamaican records which can be found on microfilm in their worldwide Family History Centers. A complete listing of their Family History Centers and locations around the world can be found online at their Family History Center Locator.

If you are researching your Jamaican family history and know of any great resources, please let us know by leaving a Comment below.

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December 25th, 2013

Internet Sleuths Use Genealogy research Techniques to Track Down Next of Kin for Coroners

I thought this was a really cool story that really emphasizes the value of genealogical research. Imagine the number of homeless people who die alone each year in America, alienated from their families and friends. Sometimes bodies are damaged so badly in an accident that they are unidentifiable. Though efforts are made to contact next of kin, it is not always possible.

Even when a body is not claimed within a 72 hour period, a concentrated effort is made to locate a family member or friend who can take responsibility for the body. The end result is not always a happy one however, and after a certain time period, the burial and funeral arrangements become the responsibility of the county in which the body was found. In certain circumstances the body is donated to science.

Previously these bodies lay unclaimed in a morgue, their fate a cremation by the state and a burial, often as a Jane or John Doe in a potter’s field. That is changing however, due to the wonderful efforts of a group of volunteers around the United States who are using genealogical research techniques and resources to track down the next of kin of unclaimed individuals.

The volunteers work tirelessly for an organization known as Unclaimed Persons. They specialize in using genealogy techniques and resources such as vital records, obituaries, immigration records, and large genealogy databases such as the Family Search collections and National Archives to find those who may want to lay their loved ones to rest.

Investigators in local and county coroners’ offices often spend months trying to track down surviving relatives, often with little success. Unclaimed persons however, have taken on almost 600 cases over the last 5 years, successfully closing 355. Needless to say, the family is always grateful, even though the news is sad.

One such example is that of James Fuller, a homeless individual who passed away in Stanton, California. Mr. Fuller was the responsibility of the Orange County coroner’s office, and spent months trying to track down his next of kin. After handing the investigation over to Unclaimed Persons, they located his son, Justin Alexander in a matter of weeks.

They found Justin living in Ohio; the last time he had seen his father (which was also the only time he ever met him) was when he was only five years old. Now 32, Justin was grateful that he could oversee his estranged father’s internment and ensure he was laid to rest with the dignity he deserved, though saddened that he now knew he would not get to meet with his father again.

There is a case manager assigned to every unclaimed persons file, who in turn oversees around fifteen researchers assigned to every case. There are approximately 500 volunteers currently working for Unclaimed Persons, and they have investigated cases in 20 states, and in more than 40 counties. They are currently involved in pursuing upwards of 90 cases.

Locating and contacting surviving family members of unclaimed bodies is a great challenge for medical examiners across the nation, especially when the deceased have no identification papers. Unclaimed Persons is a prime example of the passion, dedication, and generosity of volunteer genealogical researchers who use their skills and knowledge to help others to unite with their family members, whatever the circumstances might be.

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November 13th, 2013

5 Common Genealogy Mistakes not to Make

It’s hard enough when we make our own mistakes, but sometimes the mistakes of others can impede our genealogical research. This is especially true with older documentation, especially transcriptions and the like. Often a person’s handwriting or spelling is responsible, and occasionally completely erroneous information is supplied. Once a mistake is in print, it often carries on throughout the research of others, continually frustrating researchers or bringing them face to face with a brick wall. There are some effective strategies that I have used to overcome these unavoidable mistakes, and of course, it is my genealogical duty to share them with you!

  1. Spelling MistakesUnfortunately with genealogy records, spelling mistakes are the rule rather than the exception. This is often due to transcribers being overloaded with work, the differences between old English and the new, and sometimes because of a simple misspelling. It is always wise to check alternate spellings. Even common names such as Smith may have alternate spellings such as Smythe, Smithe, or Smit. An excellent way to include alternate spellings in a search is to use wildcard characters like a question mark (?) or asterisk (*). Search engines interpret the question mark as taking the place of a single letter, the asterisk as taking the place of several letters. Your search will thus return possible alternate spellings of the surname you are searching.
  2. Abbreviations are not Always Accurate. – It is common for abbreviations to be written or entered into records incorrectly. Mr. could be Mrs. And vice-versa. Some abbreviations have a variety of meanings that can easily be misinterpreted. NA for example can mean naturalized, not applicable, Navy, or Native American. Never guess what an abbreviation means or take it at face value. Do a little more research to make sure it means what you think it does.
  3. Age Mistakes – Common age-related mistakes are; women who are listed as mothers but are too young or too old to be one, and persons whose age is too young to have been in the military. There are exceptions to both however, but never assume the age or information with an individual is correct in these circumstances. In the case of a woman who has been recorded as giving birth to several children at a late age (40-50), it is possible the information is correct. Always examine the relationship of an older mother/child relationship though, as it is possible an adoption or orphaned child is involved. In the case of military service, some who enlisted did lie about their age, but any records of individuals under the age of 14 should be investigated.
  4. Don’t Assume that Records Don’t Exist – Although we now have more genealogical records than ever before at our disposal, believe it or not, not every genealogical record has been uncovered. Just because you can’t find a record for an individual doesn’t mean there isn’t one. Look at other record types to see if you can connect to lost or missing data. You could be the first to uncover the information you’re looking for. Family diaries and church records may have evidence of other existing records, and census records can provide clues to vital records.
  5. Secondary Records are Not Always Accurate – secondary records are notorious for containing genealogical records. The primary reason is human error – they are generally composed of second hand information provided by an informant, usually a family member, friend, or neighbor. A good example is a death certificate. Though the date of death is most likely correct as it is recorded at the time of the event, the secondary information such as the date of birth or name of the next of kin may not. Parents have been listed as the natural parents, when in fact the deceased child was adopted.

These are just a handful of genealogical mistakes and errors that I have come across. If you know of any, or have encountered some yourself, please feel free to comment about it in the box below. Happy Ancestor hunting!

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