Category Archives: Research Tips

Google Books and Google News Archive

Belated Merry Christmas and Happy New Year! It’s been so long since I posted to this blog that it almost seems like I’ve abandoned it. Well, I guess to a degree I have but maybe I can do better this year :).

Anyway, I just wanted to make a quick post about two features in google that I have been using fairly often to aid in genealogical research. The first is google books. I have started to find quite a few genealogy-related books on google, including several of the “Biographical/Historical” county books that were so popular in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Google has scanned them and made them available in pdf format. Continue reading

Why can’t I find my ancestor in the census?

One of my research strategies (and I think this one probably applies to most family researchers) is that I like to try to find an individual in all the available censuses that span that individual’s life – particularly the censuses from 1850 on in which all the household members were identified by name.  So it always bothers me when an individual or family “goes missing.” Now I do realize that on occasion an individual or family actually was missed by the census taker; but more often than not, the family (or individual) was enumerated but the name was misspelled or misinterpreted or a birth date or age is so far off it that it appears to be a different individual. So I thought that I would list some of the reasons that these elusive ancestors cannot be found with a follow-up post on strategies that can be used to find them.

Now there are a few different online sites available which have searchable census records, and we’ll talk about them more in the follow-on post. But regardless of which online site you use, the census images are only searchable because they have been indexed – and the indexes have been built by humans. The quality and accuracy of the index is dependent on the ability of the people who build it to 1) read/interpret the census images and 2) type that information correctly into the index. If the index does not accurately represent what is on the image, there are transcription errors.

Most transcription errors occur because the person/people who create the index do not interpret what is on the image correctly. This could be because the census image is damaged or faded, the quality of penmanship of the person who wrote the census may be poor or the indexer may not be familiar with old-style cursive script. Also, the indexers are human and even if they read the data correctly, they may type it wrong! Most of the major companies that sponsor the building of the indexes have checks in place that are designed to catch transcription errors, but some always seem to sneak through! In other words, the person being researched is correctly represented on the original census image, but the data in the index is wrong. And since it is the index that is being searched, a match is not found.

The other main reason that families or individuals cannot be found is because they are incorrectly represented on the census form itself. One example of why incorrect information may be on the original image is that the further back we go, fewer people could read and write English. And often their spoken English was heavily accented. So the census taker would write what he heard and the individual was not able to correct him.

Another problem is that the person supplying the information to the census taker may have given him bad information — either intentionally or unintentionally. Sometimes information was supplied by neighbors or children or extended family members and things like ages, dates and places of birth were “guessed.” In fact, ages are often inaccurate either because they were estimated or intentionally “fudged.” Even last names may have been altered. I have seen quite a few times when the youngest child was born considerably more than nine months after the death of the mother’s deceased husband, yet still carries his name. Often step-children from a mother’s previous marriage were incorrectly enumerated with the name of the current husband. I even have a case where a young girl was living with her older, married sister and was listed with the last name of the sister and her husband.

Another “bad” data problem I’ve run into more than once is that since divorce and separation used to carry quite a stigma, often-times people told the census taker they were single or widowed rather than divorced. This has tripped me up more than a few times because after seeing that the man or woman was widowed, I would not bother to even look for the spouse in another household. It also tends to really throw you off when you’re looking for an obituary or death record in the wrong decade!

Yet another way errors were introduced is that multiple copies of the census were generated to collate and also for different levels of jurisdiction. So errors could have been introduced or lines missed when coping from one form to another. (Remember, there were no scanners or copy machines!)

So the bottom line is that your ancestor may be “hiding” due to a transcription error, bad or inaccurate data on the census form itself or a combination of the two!! Now that we’ve discussed various reasons why we can’t find someone in the census, my next post will contain some strategies for finding them!

UPDATE: If you are interested in some of the strategies I used to successfully find some elusive relatives in the 1920 census, check out my success story here.

Geotagging Tombstone Photos – I wish I would have!

A while back I was going through some cemetery tombstone photos that I took a couple of years ago. I had found out the married name of one of the daughters in a family I research and was hoping that I might have a picture of her tombstone in the background of another photo. I guess I should back up here and mention that the first couple of times I photographed tombstones, I zoomed in on the individual stone – but then I learned to stand back and get a bit of the general area so that I could later go back and see the surrounding graves.  This way if there were many extended family members in a cemetery, it became easier to figure out who’s who when I got back to my computer to look at the photos. I just need to crop and reduce the photos so that just the relevant tombstone is showing for sites like findagrave. I then save the cropped version and also keep the original one for reference.

Anyway, I was going through the original photos, looking at the backgrounds, when I noticed a partly obscured one that related to yet another family I research. Unfortunately, I needed to get back to the cemetery and get another look and another photo because some of  the dates weren’t visible. Oh how I wish I would have had those original photos geotagged!! (See my previous post about this.) Had it been geotagged, the location (lat-long) of where I was standing when I took the original photo would have been stored and available for me to see. Since it was not geotagged it quite literally took me forever to find the obscured tombstone in the background. This pretty much convinced me I need to start geotagging. Even if the location was off by several feet, it would have gotten me to the right vicinity so much sooner!

I bring this up now because I am hoping to get back out to take some more cemetery photographs soon – as soon as the weather warms up. I am sooo tired of winter!

Resource – Family Search Pilot Site (Revisited)

For quite a while I’ve been meaning to write a follow-on post to my earlier one on the Family Search Pilot Site. This one is going to focus on using the Philadelphia (PA) Marriage Index. As the name suggests, this collection is images of the Marriage Index Books, not the marriage licenses or applications themselves. There is no search feature, as this collection has not been indexed. The process here is much more like flipping through the book electronically – or possibly going through microfilm a frame at a time. Warning: This process requires downloading the images that correspond to the pages in the index book. I have a high-speed, fiber-optic broadband connection and it can still be a little slow. I really can’t imagine using this collection extensively on dial-up or even the slower variety of DSL connections.

To use this resource, you start by picking a year range, then the letter of the alphabet corresponding with the surname you are researching. Note that you can look-up the surname of either the bride or the groom since both are in the index book you will be viewing. Continue reading

Obituaries – A Great Genealogical Resource!

I love reading obituaries – particularly old ones! Okay, in terms of the general population, I guess that’s a little strange. But for the average genealogy buff/family historian, it’s probably normal. In fact, if you visit my genealogy website, you can find many obituaries that I have transcribed for my various family lines.

Obituaries written in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries are often very different than the ones written now. I love the phrases they used – “worthy and useful citizen,” “interesting child,” “much esteemed,” and the somewhat jarring “[insert name here] is no more.” Continue reading