Category: Genealogy

November 6th, 2013

Use Ethnic and Foreign Language Newspapers to Uncover Ancestors

Newspapers are a source of pride and a means of bonding for every community. This is especially true for ethnic communities who may be feeling a little alienated form their homeland. A newspaper written in their own language and relaying news from their native land can help them to stay in touch with their former community, and connect them with others of their culture in their current one. Until the advent of the internet it was almost impossible to access these valuable resources, but that is changing, and ethnic newspapers can now much more easily be a part of any genealogist’s tool kit.

Thanks again to many volunteers, ethnic newspaper collections are being made easily accessible to researchers. One such collection is the African American Newspapers and Periodicals Bibliography initiated by James Danky, long time newspaper and periodical librarian at the State Historical Society of Wisconsin. The publication features a listing of over 6,500 publications and where you can find them. Many of the items in African-American Newspapers & Periodicals : A Bibliography have been placed on microfilm and can be found at the Wisconsin Historical Society Library. The full publication can be purchased form for $174.80, or you can order it at your local bookstore. Links to many of the publications in the listing can be found at the History of African-American Newspapers website.

The particular value of ethnic newspapers is their capacity to deliver detailed information on members of their community. While a local newspaper may just mention someone by name in a death notice, the ethnic paper would have a detailed obituary. Of course there is the problem of a language barrier, but software like Google Translate, though it shouldn’t be relied on for grammatical accuracy, can give you a general idea of what was said. You will be able to recognize names of individuals and locations and dates however, and that is the information that is important to you as a genealogist.

You can still find many ethnic organizations throughout the United States today, and many publish their own newspapers. The Immigration History Research Center at the University of Minnesota has a huge collection, while others can be found on a local level at libraries, state archives, and at genealogical and historical societies. There are also very specialized collections available to researchers held by organizations such as the Polish Genealogical Society of America, the Swenson Swedish Immigration Research Center at Augustana College in Illinois, and the Czech and Slovak American Genealogical Society of Illinois.

If you are researching an ancestor who immigrated, an ethnic newspaper could be an excellent source of information on them. Even if you don’t find your ancestor, you will still get an excellent idea of their culture, and how they might have lived. That is really what genealogy is all about; painting our family portrait. Always remember, it’s not just about facts and figures, but real people and how they lived.

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October 30th, 2013

Records of the Civil Conservation Corps – A Treasure Trove of Depression Era Ancestors

After the stock market crash in 1929, several programs were initiated to help the country recover from the depression that followed. One such initiative was the Civil Conservation Corps (CCC), started in 1933. The corps was opened to young men of between 17 and 21 years of age, and eventually 45,000 CCC camps employing more than 500,000 men were established throughout the United States. These young men are credited with building bridges, tending to soil conservation, planting three billion trees, and many other essential tasks. In the camps they were assigned jobs and given lodging, and they were expected to send $25 to $30 of their monthly salary back home to their families.

Additionally the corpsmen restored historical structures, established and managed tree nurseries, built dams, stocked waterways with fish, and developed wildlife streams and trails. They built lodges, lookout towers, museums, fences, drinking fountains and wildlife shelters. They were an integral part of America’s infrastructure right up until the time the corps was abandoned at the outbreak of World War II, when funds were then directed towards the war effort. Many of the CCC’s young members went on to serve in the war.

Records from the Civil Conservation Corps abound, and clues to an ancestor’s involvement in the corps can be found in enrolment cards, obituaries, photographs, or family heirlooms. You may have to search the records of several camps to find information about your ancestor, but once located some of the records you will find are:

  • Enrolment Cards – Contain the name and address of the enrolee, camp’s name and address, date they began service, discharge date, and reason for discharge.
  • Narrative Reports
  • Correspondences – May contain letters to or from enrolees regarding their experiences in the corps.
  • Discharge Certificates – Contain date and place of birth, length of enrolment, age, occupation, eye color, hair color, complexion and height.
  • Manuals and Handbooks
  • Rosters
  • Station Lists – arranged by type of camp, camp location, and project information.
  • Photographs

Original camp records can be found at the Civilian Records Textual Archives at the National Archives, while a list of states and campsites within them can be browsed online at the Civilian Conservation Corps Alumni Website. Personnel files of the CCC are available by written request only at The National Personnel Records Center (NPRC). As when you are requesting any records, make sure you give the NPRC as much information as you can about your ancestor including; full name, date of birth, place of birth, era you are researching, and any other pertinent information. The more data you can supply, the greater your chances of finding your ancestor’s records. Happy ancestor hunting!

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October 23rd, 2013

Picking Through Plantation Records to Find an Ancestor

Finding African American ancestors has its own particular set of challenges. Because of the nature of slavery, there are few records that can be used for tracing ancestors who may have been slaves. One set of valuable genealogical documents does exist however, and they are plantation records. Plantations were huge commercial operations, usually employing more than twenty five slaves, and often hundreds. The plantation managers organized their work force according to two different systems.

The first system was the task system, which assigned a daily quota of work to each slave. Upon reaching their quota, the worker was allowed to work for themselves, or to pursue recreational or leisure activities. The second was known as the gang system. In the gang system slaves were divided into groups or “gangs”, everyone working at the same job. The gangs were supervised by a person known as a “driver”; often another slave who was in turned supervised by an “overseer.”

The importance of knowing the names of the different systems lies in the fact that different types of plantations used different systems. Rice plantations incorporated the task system, while Tobacco plantations used the gang system. Cotton and Sugar plantations originally used the gang system, but in later years switched to the task system. Knowing what type of plantation your ancestor worked on will help you to understand the system they worked under, and consequently what types of record may be available to them.

The parts of plantation records that have actual genealogical value make up only a small portion of the documentation, but they do contain information that the researcher will find useful. Keep in mind that plantation records are business documents, and slaves were often itemized as inventory. Careful records were kept of items such as clothing and tools that were issued to slaves, and hence the names of the slaves who received them were recorded as well.

Plantation owners also kept daily journals, and often recorded the work that was performed or unfinished on a particular day. These records are very useful for any plantation that used the task system, as remember each individual was assigned a specific quota of work to complete. As property, slaves could also be mortgaged or rented, and sometimes they were insured. Owners were also taxed on each slave they owned, and as such owners kept careful records of such transactions.

Plantation records are also often the only place to find birth records of slaves. When a child was born to a slave it became the property of the plantation owner, and consequently another “item” to inventory. Age would be important if the owner ever chose to sell that child slave, and consequently a birth record would have been created to prove how old he or she was. Owners often kept records of their slaves as a family group, though normally only the mother was listed with her children. As such, male ancestors who were slaves are harder to track down.

Though plantation records may be hard to find, some have been microfilmed and are available at many research libraries. One such collection is the Records of Ante-Bellum Southern Plantations from the Revolutionary through the Civil War series. A Guide to the Microfilm Edition of these records is available online, and it also yields a ton of information on what you will find in them as well as brief summaries of the Plantation owners and the slaves listed in them. They are downloadable in PDF format, and are an excellent genealogical tool for anyone researching their African American ancestors.

Online Archive Canada hosts an online collection of the Sugar Plantation Records of the Hall Family of Jamaica that dates from 1709-1835, while Sankofa-gen Wiki features a constantly updated collection of free historical and genealogical data concerning American plantations, factories, farms, or manors that used African slave labor. It includes the names of slaves, and is organized by state, county, and plantation.

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October 16th, 2013

Ethnic Schools – Often Overlooked Archives of Family Facts

Schools that are devoted to educating a particular ethnic group can be very valuable archives of ancestral records. Although it may take some effort to locate the records we’re looking for, they are out there, and can tell us what other sources can’t. In some cases it may be even easier to locate info on our ancestor in these institutions. For instance, schools overseen by the Bureau of Indian Affairs are excellent sources for those tracing their Native American Ancestry and their records are on par with those found in modern schools.

Most Native American school records are housed by the federal government, and are stored on microfilm at the National Archives. The office of Indian Affairs also compiled school censuses of Indian children at town and county level throughout the United States, though not in any consistent format. In addition to normal public schools, institutions such as the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania served as boarding schools for Native American children. This school operated form 1879 to 1918, one of its most famous students being the renowned and talented Olympian and Football legend.

Until the desegregation of schools in 1954, most districts in the southern United States ran separate schools for white and black students. The scholastic census records during that time featured separate lists for black and white students, often using different color paper for each. Those records may also be found on microfilm at the National Archives, though researchers should be aware that the different color paper is not detectable on microfilm, and the records itself does not always designate race. Ione of the best known schools for black students is the Tuskegee Institute founded by Booker T. Washington. Some of the records from that institution are available online at the website.

Universities and Colleges

Institutions of higher level are excellent sources of genealogical information compared to those of primary and elementary school level. College and University records document registration, admission, course of study, and graduation, and often school archivists compile biographies and histories of former students. The preserved admission forms that most institutions possess can reveal a wealth of family data.

Yearbooks are also a go-to genealogical source, as they can reveal the attendance of an individual and provide biographical information about them. You will usually find yearbooks in the possession of alumni associations or in college and university libraries; they are well worth ordering if you trace your ancestor to such an institution. Alumni directories also yield valuable data such as subsequent business addresses and work histories of former students. Many also include the names of children or spouses.

Institutions such as West Point can be an excellent source of military records and histories. Of course they will only contain information about Union soldiers, and Confederate records are notoriously hard to find. Oversees institutions such as Cambridge University in England should also not be overlooked, and databases for such institutions can be found at sites like Of course is a subscription site and I like to stick to free genealogy resources, but these records do provide valuable information such as birth date and place, names of parents and siblings, occupation, and notable achievements.

The bottom line is that these specialized records should not be overlooked; they contain valuable data that you might not find anywhere else. Most of them are easy to access, and many are free. In fact, they are some of the best places to begin a genealogical search for a hard to find ancestor.

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September 25th, 2013

All Aboard the Orphan Train

The thing I like most about genealogy is that there is always something new to learn. Researching our ancestors puts us in touch with so many historical events and information we would probably not otherwise know. Something very interesting that I discovered recently was how orphans were placed on trains running out of New York City, and transferred to different areas around the country where they were put on display to prospective parents. Many were blessed with a wonderful new life with a loving family, but others were not so fortunate. Some disappeared along the way,; others went on to become prominent citizens and politicians.

The project of the Orphan Trains was the brainstorm of the Rev. Charles Loring Brace of the New York Children’s Aid Society. His idea was to move homeless and helpless children from the streets of the city to more family oriented rural areas around the country, specifically the west and mid-west. Before long other charitable organizations in New York and Boston joined the program, which by the end of the 19th century had spread to charities in Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio. It is estimated that between 1853 and 1929 that more than 200,000 orphans rode the trains.

On arriving at their destination, orphans were displayed very much in the manner that slaves were. This is revealed in the description relayed by one such orphan who rode the train. He said; “They put us all on a big platform in some big building while people came from around the countryside to pick out those of us they wished to take home.” This type of scenario was especially popular during the period between the civil War and the Great depression, when many became orphaned due to the death of one or both of their parents, or who were abandoned by parents who could not afford to care for them.

Of course, records were created in the process, and in the early history of the trains these records were generated in county courts by town and county clerks. Many were bound out to learn a trade, while those who were too young to work were sent to county institutions, usually maintained on a local level. Thus, county court records or probate records may provide the date that the child was apprenticed or institutionalized.

Orphanages maintained by state or local governments often kept better records than private agencies, and their records usually include:

  • Name of the child
  • Age of the child
  • Name of birthplace
  • Names of parents
  • Date of admission
  • Name of next of kin (if no parents)
  • Date of discharge
  • Name of person indentured to

These records are generally well maintained, and if the orphanage still exists, they can usually be found there. The records of state operated orphanages can be found in the state archives, or with the state’s Department of Social and Welfare Services. If you need to search for the records of an orphanage that operated privately or below state level, you may find them with the town, city, or county clerk. Local historical and genealogical societies may also be of tremendous help.

The information found in orphanage records can be critically important to the family historian. It is important to orphans seeking their birth family, and those trying to find relatives who were adopted by another family. A lifeline for adoptees in tracing their birth families is a registry known as The International Soundex Reunion Registry. It is a registry where by mutual consent, people who are either searching or would like to be found, can enter their personal information in order to be connected with those searching for them, and of course like all of our resources, it is free!

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September 18th, 2013

3 Fraternal Organizations Your Ancestor May Have Been a Member Of

How many of us think about fraternal organizations or benefit societies as a source of genealogical information? I’m not talking about college fraternities, but brotherhoods such as the Odd Fellows, Masons, Elks, and the Knights of Pythias. These groups were flourishing at the beginning of the 20th century, in fact about 85% of American males belonged to such a society at that time. These organizations often had an ethnic composition, so members had culture, language, and memories of their homeland in common; thus their popularity.

But companionship was not all that these organizations offered their members. They also sold insurance which covered sickness, disability, and burial, often at very affordable prices. They were also dedicated to caring for the widows and orphaned children of members, published their own newspapers, and sponsored classes that helped their members adjust to their new American community and way of life. Additionally they supported orphanages, homes for the elderly, and social and sports clubs. What does all this mean to the genealogist? Well, records were generated of course!

Following is a quick summary of three major fraternal organizations in the United States, what kind of records they generated, and where you might find them.

  1. Freemasons. The Freemasons are probably the most well known of fraternal organizations, not just in the United States, but around the world. Freemasons arrived on American shores from England in 1733, making it one of the earliest such organizations in the country. Freemason records are generally ion the form of Lodge records which may contain information on members such as; date of joining the organization, rank held, offices held, and so on. You may also find biographical documentation on prominent members, which can be found at individual lodges, a directory of which can be found at the Freemasons Website.
  2. Grand Army of the Republic. The Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) was formed with the intention of cultivating friendship, comradeship, and patriotism among the Union veterans who had served in the US military (land or sea) during the Civil War. The GAR is responsible for establishing Memorial Day as an American national holiday. The GAR was a three-tired organization with positions held at local, county, and state level. Its primary duties were to protect and assist disabled soldiers and their families and to promote appreciation for those who served their country through social, moral, or political activity. They are an excellent go-to source if your ancestor was a Civil war veteran, and many of their records can be browsed online at the GAR Website.
  3. Modern Woodmen of America. The Modern Woodmen of America are an excellent example of a fraternal benefit society. They were founded in 1883 with a view to providing financial security to families across America from all walks of life. Despite its name the organization was not limited to those who worked in forestry or woodworking. The name was rather devised from a sermon that discussed “pioneer woodmen clearing the forest for the benefit of man.” There are two types of records that this organization offers the genealogist; business records of various units, and records of benefits paid. The latter group are of more interest to genealogists, as they obviously will include names. The Woodsmen have maintained records from 1884-1946, though access to them must be made by request via the Modern Woodmen Website.

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July 16th, 2013

How to Research Jewish Genealogy

Researching any family history is a challenge. There are so many variables involved in genealogical research that it can be overwhelming at times, especially for beginners. Researching a specific ethnicity can be even more of a challenge, as resources may be limited or even in a different language from your own. There are some basic things you can do though, to make tracing your family lineage much easier, even fun. Though inevitably you will have to knuckle down to some hardcore research, you can lay down a firm foundation for when that time comes by getting to grips with some genealogy basics, and taking advantage of the abundance of help that is available.

There are many records available online that are invaluable for individuals who with to research their Jewish heritage. JewishGen for example has over 20 million records in their collection. Before beginning a records search however, there is a goldmine of information right in front of and all around you – your family. Interview any family members you think might know a bit about your ancestors. Older relatives such as grandparents and great aunts and uncles (aunts and uncles of your parents) can surprise you with the stories they can tell. Make sure you take a recording device you can just listen and then write out any facts and figures later.

It is also a good idea to take a basic genealogy course, many of which are available online. If you’d rather not spend the time involved in taking a course, you can download our Free Family Tree Research Guide. It provides step-by-step instruction on tracing your family tree, including how to locate and understand the various record types, filling in family tree charts, and much more. Having such a guide at your disposal will ensure that you stay on course during your research, which is a critical aspect of how to research Jewish genealogy.

You may also benefit from joining a discussion group on how to research Jewish genealogy. The most popular one on the internet is the one at JewishGen, but there is also one at soc.genealogy.jewish in Google Groups. In a discussion group you can post messages about what surnames or ancestral towns you are researching. Other genealogists who are researching the same items can contact you, and will, especially if you ask nicely for help. You don’t have to worry about your privacy being violated, as everything happens on the JewishGen website, and you can submit your information or requests anonymously.

Thousands of people have discovered family members in discussion groups, and you can benefit from the knowledge of experienced researchers by joining one. The above tips can help you to get going in your genealogy research, and acquaint you with various research techniques. Though you won’t become an expert in how to research Jewish genealogy by following them, you will meet people who are!

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July 2nd, 2013

Where to Find German Ancestry Records

Finding ancestry records in foreign countries can be difficult: there is of course the language barrier, but also there is the issue of where to find the records we need. Not every society stores vital and state records the same way, and if you do manage to locate a repository, it can be hard to understand the technical terminology of records. For instance church records are called Kirchenbucher, or church “books” as opposed to records. Where we can we’ll include the German terminology in this article, but keep in mind that this is not an in-depth piece that completely explains the German language. Related matters to that subject will be addressed separately in another article. The purpose of this section is to first show you where to find German ancestry records.

German Archives and Libraries with Ancestry Records

German archives like any others collect and preserve ancestry records. Libraries in Germany usually contain published sources such as maps, microfilm and books. They are valuable resources for accessing ancestry records, but if intending to visit one of these establishments it is wise to first ask about any possible fees, and also who may access the records, as privacy laws in Germany can be quite strict regarding ancestry records.

The major types of repositories where you will find German genealogical records are; State and Town Archives, Civil Registration Offices, Church Parish Offices, and Historical and Genealogical Societies such as the German Center for Genealogy. The Federal Archives of Germany have very few ancestry records that are useful to genealogists, however the state archives are much more modern, and preserve many valuable ancestor records such as court records, church records, military records, civil registration records, emigration lists, and land records. State archives are also generally more accessible to the general public.

Civil registration of births, deaths, and marriages began in Germany in the early to mid-nineteenth century, but some records can be found dating from 1792. Some have been given over to state archives, but most are kept in local and regional offices. The populations of smaller communities usually registered in the closest town or city, which in turn are divided into civil registration districts. You must be a direct descendant of the person whose records you seek to receive an abstract or photocopy of these ancestor records, but usually the staffs are very helpful, and if they don’t have the ancestry records you require, will direct you to where you can find them.

There are many locally based and national genealogical and historical societies in Germany that collect and archive ancestry records. One such organization is the German Center for Genealogy. It was especially founded as an archive for genealogical records, and has an extensive collection of German church records, as well as records of German settlements throughout Eastern Europe. Generally genealogical research must be conducted at their facility in Leipzig, but for a fee staff will attempt to locate documents for you.

Archives Outside Germany that Contain German Ancestry Records

Because of Germany’s expansion prior to and during the Second World War, many German ancestry records can be found in the archives of other European countries. The State Archives of Poland has records from the areas of Pommern, Schleisen, Ostpreiussen, Westpreussen, and Posen, as these areas were returned to Poland after the war. As an added benefit, there are certain parts of the website that are available in English. If you are searching ancestors from the Lubeck, Oldenburg, or Schleswig-Holstein areas of Germany, you may find ancestry records in the State Archives of Denmark. Their website is in English, and for a small fee you can receive help from a staff researcher.

Although this is merely a basic summary of where to find ancestry records in Germany, it has hopefully provided you with a foundation from which to begin your search. Remember that you should generally know the name of the town where your German ancestor was born, married, or died, as most records are kept at a local level. Ask your family members for any information they might have, especially older ones, as they may able to pinpoint the location in which to search for the ancestry records you seek.

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