About Duncan Kuehn

Duncan Kuehn is a professional genealogist with over eight years of client experience. She has worked on several well-known projects, such as Who Do You Think You Are? and researching President Barack Obama’s ancestry. She runs her own research company, “The Family Briar Patch,” and also works for GenealogyBank.com.

Tips on How to Search for Your Ancestors’ Hometowns & Townships

Introduction: Duncan Kuehn is a professional genealogist with over eight years of client experience. She has worked on several well-known projects, such as “Who Do You Think You Are?” and researching President Barack Obama’s ancestry. In this guest blog post, Duncan shows how to find information about your ancestral hometown using GenealogyBank’s collections of historical documents and old newspapers, as well as a couple of other helpful websites.

GenealogyBank is not only a great resource to find information about your ancestors’ lives—you can learn about their hometowns as well.

For example, I am curious to see if I can find any information about a tiny township that my family is from, located in rural Indiana. This township has an unusual name that I have always found slightly amusing: Whiskey Run, Crawford County, Indiana.

How to Search for Hometowns with GenealogyBank

I begin my search by typing “Whiskey Run” in the last name field (see below). The quotation marks keep the words together as a phrase. GenealogyBank’s search engine allows you to enter names or words into the first and last name fields.

screenshot of a search on GenealogyBank for Whiskey Run, Indiana

This archive search brings back quite a few results: 714! I’m a bit surprised to see so many for such an unusual name. There are 30 results in the Historical Documents collection that I want to look through first.

screenshot of the search results page in GenealogyBank for a search on Whiskey Run, Indiana

How to Search the U.S. Congressional Serial Set

GenealogyBank’s Historical Documents collection largely consists of the U.S. Congressional Serial Set, along with other government documents. The Serial Set was organized in 1817 as the official collection of reports and documents of the United States Congress. This large multivolume resource contains various congressional reports and documents from the beginning of the federal government right up to the present day. The collection is published in a “serial” fashion, hence its name. Containing a combination of legislative and executive publications, the Serial Set has tremendous value as a primary source for American history.

Normally, any mention of politics or Congress would be enough to put me to sleep, but these government documents have been some of my best finds. They contain all sorts of information relating to pensions, land disputes, military service, etc. I even found a firsthand account of a many-great grandfather’s experience in the Civil War. Where else, but a journal, could you find such outstanding information!

Let’s see what we can find in these 30 Historical Documents about Whiskey Run.

There are various pages relating to the functions of the township. A few are of particular interest. Here’s one: this page tells me the population of the various townships in Crawford County in 1880.

screenshot of a historical document from GenealogyBank showing the population of Whiskey Run, Indiana, in 1880

And here is another that tells me the public library had 350 books in 1886. Not bad for such a small township.

screenshot of a historical document from GenealogyBank showing the number of books in the town library of Whiskey Run, Indiana, in 1886

A quick tip for navigating through the pages of these historical documents: I can easily move forward or backward in the document by clicking on the page numbers along the left hand side of the page, as shown here:

screenshot of a historical document from GenealogyBank about Whiskey Run, Indiana

I can also move through the document sequentially by using the “Previous Page” and “Next Page’ tools along the top right side of the image, as shown here:

screenshot of some navigation tools from GenealogyBank

Searching the Newspaper Archives

Enter Last Name










While I found some interesting tidbits about the township in these Historical Documents, I haven’t struck gold yet. I want to go back and search through the Newspaper Archives now. I click on “Search All Collections” in the upper left hand corner to return to the main search results page.

screenshot of navigation tools from a search results page in GenealogyBank

Now that I am back to the main results page, I can see that 680 of the 714 results for “Whiskey Run” were in the Newspaper Archives.

screenshot of the search results page in GenealogyBank for a search on Whiskey Run, Indiana

I click into the Newspaper Archives collection to narrow my results. After scrolling to the bottom of the search results page, I narrow my search by typing Indiana in the keyword field. (I did not select just the state of Indiana when I began my search because that would have restricted my results to newspapers published only in the state of Indiana.) Newspaper articles can get picked up by many newspapers and be published literally anywhere in the United States.

I want to find articles about Whiskey Run of Indiana—not articles about running to get some booze, or the similarly-named townships in Pennsylvania and Virginia. Entering the word Indiana in the Include Keywords field will search for articles that mention both Whiskey Run and Indiana. So now my newspaper archives search looks like this:

screenshot of a search in GenealogyBank for Whiskey Run and Indiana

Glancing through the new search results, I notice that there must have been a race horse in Indiana with the name Whiskey Run. To eliminate those articles from my search results, I add the term “race” in the Exclude Keywords field like this:

screenshot of a search in GenealogyBank for Whiskey Run and Indiana, excluding the word "race"

Now I have 20 articles left to explore about the township in my search results. I like to sort them with the oldest articles first so that I can read them chronologically. I arrange them by using the “Sort by” drop-down menu in the upper right hand corner of the results page, as shown here:

screenshot of a sorting feature provided by GenealogyBank for its search results

Now that I have everything sorted just the way I like, I can begin looking through the remaining results. Whiskey Run township was a sparsely populated township so it doesn’t take me long to look through these results. If the township were more popular there would have been many more articles written about it, in which case I could add, subtract, and adjust my keywords to get down to a reasonable number of results. I could also add a date range if I was only interested in a specific time period.

Once I pull up an article by clicking on its headline or image snippet, I can search for any word in the text. To change the word that is being highlighted in the article, I can type the new word into the find box and click on “Find,” like this:

screenshot of a find feature in GenealogyBank

My Ancestral Hometown Research Findings

I found a few news articles that list Whiskey Run as one of the strange place names in America. (I’m glad I’m not the only one who thinks so.) I found articles talking about the inhabitants and happenings in Whiskey Run. But I really struck gold with this article about the history and name of the county and township.

article about Whiskey Run, Indiana, Evansville Courier and Press newspaper article 1 June 1924

Evansville Courier and Press (Evansville, Indiana), 1 June 1924, page 6

According to the old news article:

“The story goes that down on the stream one day an Indiana (sic) named ‘Whiskey’ killed a man named ‘Run’ who had a jug of whiskey with him. Then he ran away with Run’s whiskey. So the pioneers generally spoke of the stream as ‘Whiskey Run.’”

Since this newspaper article came out during the time of alcohol prohibition, I’m a little suspicious of this legend. A fast moving, low turbulence stream was called a “run” and several of my ancestors were arrested for making moonshine in the hills around the stream with the same name. I suspect that the township’s name probably had a different origin. But this makes for a fun story.

Enter Last Name










I learned many important historical facts about the Indiana town from this long article. Of particular interest was that Liberty Township was carved out of Whiskey Run in 1842. This helps me to know that the branch of the family that appears in Liberty around this time may not have moved after all. The area they were living in simply got annexed into Liberty Township. Good to know!

The results of my search on GenealogyBank were a bit surprising since Whiskey Run is such a small, rural township, and I was glad to find so much good information. To flesh out my ancestral hometown research, I could use two additional resources.

FamilySearch

The first is the Family History Research Wiki from FamilySearch. This is a free resource that usually gives me great background information on an area and explains how to find and access relevant documents. Unfortunately, Whiskey Run is too small to appear in this resource, but I can still look up Crawford County. Here I can find where the land, tax, and vital records are stored. It has lots of valuable information for me as I research this area.

HistoryPin.com

Another great resource is a new find for me. This site, History Pin.com, is a place for users to submit their historical photos of an area. Nothing came up for Whiskey Run, but I did find some spectacular images from the nearby township of English and the town of Corydon.

GenealogyBank’s collection of newspapers and the U.S. Congressional Serial Set can be an excellent way to learn more about the area in which your ancestors lived, even if it was a tiny township in a rural area. Try an ancestral hometown search yourself and let us know what you find out!

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You Found That Article Where? Newspaper Search Tips for Genealogists

Introduction: Duncan Kuehn is a professional genealogist with over eight years of client experience. She has worked on several well-known projects, such as “Who Do You Think You Are?” and researching President Barack Obama’s ancestry. In this guest blog post, Duncan provides some newspaper search tips for genealogists, especially regarding locations.

Typically when we do genealogical research we go straight to the local jurisdiction, which is often at the county level. We get vital records, land deeds, and tax lists on a county level. Although the federal census is conducted nationwide, we can search it on a county or even city level. As genealogists, we tend to narrow our focus down to the smallest jurisdictional unit. This is typically a very effective strategy.

However, this local focus is not always the best approach when searching newspapers.

Search Nationwide First, Then Refine

If you took your local newspaper and organized all the articles in it by the location of the event being reported, you would find that the majority of the news comes from outside of the city, county or even state where the paper was published. This has been true throughout history. When searching for information in newspapers, I begin my searches by looking nationwide. But if I get too many search results, I then narrow my search by using date ranges and specific locations.

Here’s how I approach searching for family history information in newspapers.

  1. First, I begin my search with just the first and last name.
  2. Then I narrow the search by date range if I get too many results.
  3. Once I have searched with this criteria and I am still getting too many results, I narrow further by using the city or state name as a keyword.

It is important to keep in mind that GenealogyBank’s search engine is very specific and will only search for exactly what you type. This helpful feature prevents you from getting too many unrelated results back.

But it also means that you have to be creative in what you enter in the search box. This applies to the names and keywords fields. When I am searching nationwide for an article from San Francisco, California, there are a variety of keywords I could use: California, Calif, CA, San Francisco, San Fran, SF.

Enter Last Name










Newspaper Search Tips

  • Use Quotations for Phrases: Whenever you enter a group of words that you want to find together, such as “San Francisco,” put the group in quotation marks.
  • Start Broad Then Refine: The default setting on GenealogyBank already searches nationwide for you. There is the option to select a state from the map at the bottom of the results page. However, doing so will often eliminate many of the newspaper articles you are looking for. Therefore, I recommend doing a nationwide search first and then, if necessary, using keywords such as the city or state name to narrow your results.
  • Explore Articles from Multiple States: Keep in mind as you look through the search results page that the location listed is the location of the newspaper and not the location of the article. Don’t hesitate to click on any newspaper article that looks like it might be relevant even if its listed location appears to be several states away from where your ancestor lived.
  • Use Keywords: You can add a series of keywords into the “Include Keywords” box. Keep in mind that adding too many keywords all at once may not be an effective research strategy. Add them one at a time until you get down to a reasonable number of results to search, around 100-200.
  • Exclude Keywords: You can also use the “Exclude Keywords” box to narrow results. Let’s say you were searching for a man named Eric Clapton, but you weren’t looking for the musician. Glance through the results and find words that often appear in articles about the musician. These may be things like: album, concert, or guitar. Enter those words into the “Exclude Keywords” box as follows: album OR concert OR guitar. This eliminates articles with those words.

Whom Will You Find?

Some genealogists may think that the person they are looking for was a poor farmer from a small town who would never have made the national news. You would be surprised what articles got picked up and how far away they went! I’ve included several examples in this Blog article to prove this point. Today it is less likely that small town news will travel nationwide, but the further back in history you go the more likely it is that local news could be published in distant newspapers.

Where’s My Ancestor in the News?

Keep in mind that local news articles can be published in any newspaper in the nation, in places where you might not logically think to look. Your ancestor may not have ever visited the area where the news was published. They may not have any friends or relatives residing in that location. Newspapers subscribed to other papers and published their articles if they thought the news would be interesting to their own readers. There were no copyright laws to stop them from republishing word for word—or even from embellishing—what was originally published elsewhere. Newspaper editors would also select news articles from other papers simply because they fit the space their paper had available.

Newspapers’ Historical Role in Daily Life

In the past, newspapers were the main form of mass communication, predating other social media like radio, TV, Facebook and Twitter. When families moved from one place to another, they would often keep their subscription to their hometown newspaper. If many people migrated from a certain location, the local paper in their new area would regularly run articles from their place of origin in order to cater to those readers.

Reading the newspaper and talking over the events was a highlight of a community’s week. Before TV, this was a common form of entertainment. Human nature is always looking for new and exciting experiences. This fact keep editors busy scouring other papers for information to republish. For genealogy researchers, this gives us multiple opportunities to find the articles we are searching for, even if the original newspaper’s archives no longer exist!

Enter Last Name










Genealogical Gold in Republished Articles

Here is a great example of that. I once had a genealogist ask for help finding a photograph of one of her relatives that had appeared in the local newspaper in Allentown, Pennsylvania. She had looked through GenealogyBank’s collection of Pennsylvania newspapers and hadn’t been able to find the photo. I started by using just her ancestor’s last name because it was uncommon. I did not put any additional information in the search box. We found several copies of the photograph that had been published in newspapers all across the nation (Illinois, Massachusetts, Tennessee and North Carolina) and she was able to select the best copy for her records.

Here is a photo of her ancestor Mary Tauschman helping a pet duck cross the road, published in a Massachusetts newspaper.

photo of crossing guard Mary Tauschman, Springfield Union newspaper photograph 27 April 1969

Springfield Union (Springfield, Massachusetts), 27 April 1969, page 2

Searching Articles across U.S. States

Another time, I helped a genealogist who was searching for a report of her relative’s car accident in Forth Worth, Texas. We were able to find the article all the way up in a Massachusetts newspaper!

Her ancestor’s accident was indeed horrible—thank goodness for the quick action by her husband!

Swift Kick by Husband Saves Lady Driver's (Idell Schults) Life, Boston Record American newspaper article 13 December 1961

Boston Record American (Boston, Massachusetts), 13 December 1961, page 16

Here is another example. A large Mississippi family is photographed and named individually, but the photo appears in a Louisiana newspaper.

photo of the large family of William and Catherine Smith, Times-Picayune newspaper photograph 12 March 1922

Times-Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana), 12 March 1922, page 39

There is also the example I gave in a previous GenealogyBank Blog post about the death notice of my ancestor Zachariah Nicholson (see: Genealogy Records: A History of Regional Coverage in the U.S.). There is no reason this farmer’s death in Indiana would appear in a Michigan newspaper—yet here it is.

death notice for Zachariah Nicholson, Jackson Citizen Patriot newspaper article 19 January 1895

Jackson Citizen Patriot (Jackson, Michigan), 19 January 1895, page 7

Here is one more example: an announcement for a marriage in Omaha City, Nebraska, that is appearing in a Georgia newspaper.

Spilman-Gaylord wedding announcement, Marietta Journal newspaper article 9 September 1880

Marietta Journal (Marietta, Georgia), 9 September 1880, page 3

Genealogy Search Tip: Start your newspaper search without a location, searching nationwide because you never know what paper published an article about your ancestor. If you get too many search results, start narrowing your search by using the state or city name as a keyword.

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6 Genealogy Projects to Interest Kids & Teens in Family History

Introduction: Duncan Kuehn is a professional genealogist with over eight years of client experience. She has worked on several well-known projects, such as “Who Do You Think You Are?” and researching President Barack Obama’s ancestry. In this guest blog post, Duncan describes six fun genealogy projects to help interest children and teenagers in family history.

Many of us want to share our passion for family history research with our children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews, and other young ones in our lives. This fulfills our innate need to leave a legacy behind, and to inform and guide the next generation. Not only is this sharing beneficial for the storyteller, it plays an important role in the life of the listener.

Why Pass Down Family Stories?

Family stories give children hope, courage, perspective, and greater understanding. They see that others have done hard things and come out the other side stronger (or at least still alive and kicking). “Uncle Bob had this exact experience and it turned out well for him.” It can provide perspective on life’s blessings and challenges. “What did people use to communicate before mobile phones and Facebook?” Sharing the stories of our ancestors can connect family members and encourage empathy and understanding for other people’s experiences. There is even evidence from recent psychological research supporting the idea that children with a better understanding of their family’s past possess more self-confidence.

But how can we have those magical moments with the young ones in our lives? Remember that when we share our passion for family history we don’t want to push others, but rather entice them and invite them to know more. While complex and in-depth genealogy research challenges may make us giddy, they aren’t nearly as exciting to “future researchers.” Start intriguing them with new ideas and family stories that will appeal to them at their level. Realize that not every effort will be a success every time. Some children are naturally more interested in family history than others. We should make an effort to reach all of the important children in our lives with genealogy in a way that makes sense to them.

1. Share Old Family Photos

Most children love pictures. Old family photos, and graphics from newspapers, are one way to interest children in family history research.

News of the World Told in Pictures, Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper article 9 August 1922

Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 9 August 1922, page 13

Smaller children have very short attention spans and are often highly visual.

2. Play Genealogy Games

They also love interactive games. When my children were young, I created two sets of cards with the pictures of their family members: themselves, siblings, parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, great grandparents and even pets. Many of these people my children knew well, some lived far away, and others had already passed on. We would play matching, “Go Fish,” and other games with these small laminated photos. Our favorite was our own brand of the classic children’s game “Guess Who.” This taught them how to notice small details, the names of colors, and other important skills in addition to learning about family members. Eventually, we lost a few of the cards after my smallest son started sleeping with them. I didn’t mind because they had fulfilled the purpose of creating a bridge between generations.

3. Explore Old Newspaper Articles Together

Using newspaper articles about family members is another effective way to engage little children. These articles are often written in interesting and entertaining language. Even better, they are usually brief enough to accommodate children’s short attention spans. I grew up with some copies of newspaper articles featuring my grandfather. One article had a picture of my grandpa receiving a cake for his 12th birthday. I loved seeing a picture of him when he was a child and thought he must have been someone important to get his picture in the paper!  As a child, I didn’t know that many people had their picture in the paper.

In fact, I had several old newspaper articles that included pictures of my grandfather. One showed him and his beautiful sister singing together. Another picture showed his graduating class. And yet another photo was of him eating a burger covered in my grandma’s homemade barbeque sauce, recipe included.

Newspaper articles, such as those in GenealogyBank’s online Historical Newspaper Archives, add flavor to the details about our ancestors. People are more than names and dates; they have stories. These newspaper articles express that and gave me a better understanding of my grandpa even though I grew up visiting him every week.

Imagine how excited your children would be to find an old newspaper picture of their grandfather as a youth, printed long ago when he was a Boy Scout!

Named Omaha's Best (Boy) Scouts (Cezere Zampesi and Edward Brown), Omaha World Herald newspaper articles 26 August 1926

Omaha World Herald (Omaha, Nebraska), 26 August 1926, page 2

Teenagers often find old newspaper articles fascinating. I have searched for humorous or unusual articles by using the keywords “dear wife” or “dear husband” or even “funny” or “joke.”

Here are a few examples of what I found.

In this unusual example, a captured soldier in 1823 wrote his wife the day before his scheduled execution, explaining his death. She received his letter, and then decided to make the best of it by marrying another man. Well, that condemned soldier ended up being rescued, but he didn’t have the heart to go home and tell his wife the news, breaking up her new marriage!

letter written by a condemned soldier in 1823, Sentinel and Witness newspaper article 16 April 1823

Sentinel and Witness (Middletown, Connecticut), 16 April 1823, page 4

In this funny example, a husband’s practical joke on his wife backfired when he pretended he had fallen out of the bedroom window—and her response was not the scare he had hoped to cause. Hiding behind the curtain, he heard her say:

“Poor old Jim,” she quietly said. “He’s tumbled out of the window in his raggedest nightshirt. What a spectacle he’ll be when they find him in the morning!” Then she lay down again and went to sleep.

What did you do?

“Stood there like a fool for a minute or two and then sneaked into bed.”

article about a practical joke a husband pulled on his wife, Morning Olympian newspaper article 13 December 1900

Morning Olympian (Olympia, Washington), 13 December 1900, page 4

Children can also search for topics that they are interested in, such as trains, UFOs, scary stories, etc., on GenealogyBank’s search page by doing a keyword search.

Everyone loves a good ghost story. Despite the best efforts of 100 police, no one could identify the thumping sounds coming out of this haunted house in Chicago.

article about a haunted house in Chicago, Augusta Chronicle newspaper article 13 October 1922

Augusta Chronicle (Augusta, Georgia), 13 October 1922, page 3

How about this eerie story, of the “horrible experience” of Mrs. Hart? She fell into a seven-hour trance and everyone thought she was dead. Although she couldn’t move or speak, she was aware of everything the entire time—heard herself pronounced dead; listened to the fading footsteps of her loved ones after saying their goodbyes and walking away from her bedside; and was aware the undertaker was about to embalm her…when she suddenly woke up!

The Horrible Experience of Mrs. Hart at East St. Louis, Alive but Believed Dead, Rockford Republic newspaper article 17 January 1900

Rockford Republic (Rockford, Illinois), 17 January 1900, page 3

4. Compile a Family Storybook or Scrapbook

You can even write your own short stories about your ancestors, and add photos, to share with your children. I created a genealogy book, with both photos and short stories, to showcase our family history. The family stories don’t need to be long or even have a moral to impart. In my book I included a letter written by a neighbor of one of my 6th great grandmother’s. It talked about how my ancestor, Ann Quick, would take a hasty dip in the nearby river every morning, ice filled or not, to strengthen her “constitution.” My kids now refer to a fast, cold shower as an “Ann Quick shower” to which we all reply, “Good for the constitution!” It is a small story, but it makes her personal to my kids. I used to read this book as bedtime stories for my children.

Children enjoy seeing pictures of their ancestors when they were little kids.

photo of the McBan twins, Baltimore American newspaper article 28 December 1922

Baltimore American (Baltimore, Maryland), 28 December 1922, page 9

5. Create a Family Recipe Book

If the children like to cook, have them collect family recipes and make a book to send out to friends and relatives. If they can’t find old family recipes, use ones that the family loves now and look through the newspaper for other recipes that sound interesting.

6. Join a Volunteer Project for Genealogy

Older children and teens that show an interest in family history can get involved in fun genealogy-related projects. For example, they can do indexing (get more information here: https://familysearch.org/indexing/). Indexing means reading original records and entering the information into a set form so that it is available for searching. This is crucial for making documents easy to find. FamilySearch’s highlighted projects for this year include obituaries, which are typically typed and fun to read. Many people I have talked to have mentioned that indexing can be a fun addiction! Other websites also have volunteer projects. One that comes to mind is BillionGraves. This site lets you download an app to your smart phone. Then you go to a local cemetery and photograph the headstones. These images and accompanying index are made free for anyone to view.

Here is an example of a recent—and lighthearted—obituary that would be fun to index.

obituary for Mary Mullaney, North Shore Now newspaper article 12 September 2013

North Shore Now (Bayside, Wisconsin), 12 September 2013, page 22

Some teens are interested in helping with genealogical research. Many of my peers began their own researching experience when 12-14 years old. Not only do they have excellent computer skills to find information, they also naturally question everything. While annoying to parents, it is actually a critical research strategy. A teen’s natural ability to question and seek to understand can help you to see your research in a different light. Guide them along by answering their questions, leading them to interesting resources, and gently nudging them to expand their thinking and learn more. Soon they will be showing you how to do things! My 15-year-old son just showed me a great new mapping tool that he found even though he insists that he “isn’t really interested in genealogy.”

Tip: Remember to Make Family History Fun!

If your goal is to interest your children in family history, then the key is keeping the activities fun and interesting. Never push them too far beyond their interest level or they will learn to dread the activity. I grew up hating history class in school, yet I graduated from college with a history degree. How did that happen? The short answer is that I loved to hear the stories my grandma told me. What impact will your family stories have on the rising generation?

Guide to Ancestor Middle Name Research for Genealogy

Introduction: Duncan Kuehn is a professional genealogist with over eight years of client experience. She has worked on several well-known projects, such as “Who Do You Think You Are?” and researching President Barack Obama’s ancestry. In this guest blog post, Duncan provides a guide to understanding your ancestors’ middle names, and how to use middle names in your family history research.

As a genealogy consultant, I often get questions about the significance of middle names. This article will cover many of the common reasons behind middle names, and discuss their usefulness when doing family history research. (Since I am discussing the middle names of ancestors, I have used the past tense in this article—but the information can apply to the present day as well.)

Middle names can offer significant and important clues about your ancestors. Or not. Let’s cover the cautions first.

Things to Remember When Researching Middle Names

The first thing to keep in mind is that not everyone had a middle name. Nor does every middle initial have a name associated with it. Harry S. Truman is a well-known example of this; the “S” did not stand for a middle name. Sometimes this was done to distinguish family members with common names, such as George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush. George H. W. Bush brings up another point: it is possible for someone to have multiple middle names. A friend of mine has seven!

a photo of U.S. President Harry S. Truman

Photo: U.S. President Harry S. Truman. Credit: Wikipedia.

Is It a Middle Name or First Name?

Some names that appear to be middle names are actually part of the first name. In my own family and circle of friends the following double first names appear: Rose Marie, Mary Beth, Alice Ann, Mary Jo, Terry Kay, and Mary Ann. While these are more common among females, there are similar male names. Conversely, some of what appear to be middle names may actually be part of the last name. This is common in Latino names or some European names like Van Wagonen or Mac Graw.

Some middle names were used like a first name. A person named John David Smith may have never been addressed as John at all. He may have used the name J. David Smith or just David Smith or even David J. Smith. Sometimes this is done when the first name is also the parent’s or a relative’s first name. For example, the world knows this famous British author as Rudyard Kipling—but his full name was Joseph Rudyard Kipling.

a photo of British author Rudyard Kipling

Photo: British author Rudyard Kipling. Credit: Wikipedia.

In the U.S. South, the first and middle name could be switched back and forth making it unclear which name was originally intended for which purpose. It was also not uncommon for several siblings in a family to have the same middle name or, less commonly, the same first name with different middle names.

How Middle Names Are Chosen

It’s also possible that middle names may have no significance at all. In some cases, the parents just picked them because they liked the name and/or it sounded good with the first name. Middle names may have been influenced by the culture at the time. During the 1970s and 80s many girls were given the middle name of Marie or Ann simply because they were popular. Parents may have liked an uncommon name but didn’t want to give it as a first name, so they chose it as a middle name. These could include common words being used as middle names, nature-inspired themes, virtues, and so on.

The middle name may be a common name used among the family. My own middle name is the same as my mother’s. One of my brothers carries the middle name of our father and grandfather. But neither name has any real significance. Incidentally, neither my brother nor I liked the middle names we were given, and the tradition with those particular names ended with us. As in my family, the name may be another family member’s first name. Both of my sons have middle names that are also the first name of an ancestor or living relative. It is not uncommon for a son to have for a middle name his father’s or grandfather’s first name. This can also happen with daughters although not as commonly.

Is It a Middle Name or Last Name?

Sometimes the ancestor’s middle name appears to be a surname. This can happen for males or females. A surname used as a middle name may come from the mother’s maiden name. This is yet another reason why it is important to conduct research on everyone in a family and not just your direct line. However, don’t assume the unusual middle name is the mother’s maiden name as there are other reasons why this could occur. When you find a surname used this way, do some research on others in the area with that last name. You may discover that the parents just used the name because they liked it. Or you may discover a hidden secret. The following are three middle name examples I have found in my own genealogy research.

Middle Name Research Case #1

My great grandmother’s middle name was Bell. Initially, I believed this was a misspelling of the name Belle, which means beautiful. But then I discovered her father also had the middle name Bell, as did several other relatives. I have found many Bell families living near them as well. I now suspect that the name was “borrowed” from the Bell family, but at this point I have not yet found a clear connection. They may have just been friends or there may be another reason.

Middle Name Research Case #2

On another line of the family I found the middle name Bowles. Searching the neighborhood I found a prominent man named William A. Bowles. William was also the given name of my ancestor. It is possible that my 4th Great Grandparents named their son William Bowles after this man. So I did a little digging into GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives for more information on this man. I have to admit, I didn’t like what I found.

William A. Bowles became somewhat famous. He moved into the Indiana area in 1830, just two years before my ancestor bearing his name was born. William A. Bowles was a Mexican-American War colonel, newspaper editor, and prominent community leader. This William Bowles may have been a founder of the Order of the Sons of Liberty, a great-sounding name for what in reality was an abhorrent group of the Knights of the Golden Circle—a secret society in favor of slavery and against the Union. The hope of gathering Bowles and his followers to the Southern cause was one of the reasons Confederate General John Hunt Morgan marched his troops into Kentucky, Indiana and Ohio during the summer of 1863, a Civil War expedition known as “Morgan’s Raid.”

I had initially held some hope that my grandparents named their son after this man, but that was prior to my research revealing the extent of his pro-slavery beliefs. However, their son proudly used his middle name Bowles as his first name in the census returns following the Civil War. While I can’t prove the motivation for using this name, I can guess at the political leaning of my ancestor and am disturbed by it. While I am disgusted by their probable pro-slavery, anti-Union beliefs, I now know more about them than I did before investigating William A. Bowles.

obituary for William A. Bowles, Elkhart Weekly Review newspaper article 10 April 1873

Elkhart Weekly Review (Elkhart, Indiana), 10 April 1873, page 4

Middle Name Research Case #3

Sometimes babies were named after prominent political or community leaders to attract support from them. A poor family of several multiple births (twins, triplets, etc.) named two of their sons after political leaders. This was obvious in the name of one boy: Theodore Roosevelt Spyhalski. The plan to curry President Roosevelt’s favor was answered when he, a fan of large families, sent the parents a signed self-portrait as a congratulatory letter. The second son’s name was less obvious: Samuel Jones Spyhalski. However, a quick search in GenealogyBank’s newspaper archives shows that Samuel Jones was the mayor of Toledo, where the family was living. The plan worked very well when Mayor Jones offered a job to the struggling father and tried to help the family as much as possible.

So keep in mind that searching on an ancestor’s middle name may—in some cases—prove very helpful to your genealogy research, turning up family history information you might not have found otherwise, and sometimes leading you to additional, unexpected searches.

Do you have any genealogy stories or tips about researching ancestor middle names? If so, please share them in the comments.

Genealogy Records: A History of Regional Coverage in the U.S.

Introduction: Duncan Kuehn is a professional genealogist with over eight years of client experience. She has worked on several well-known projects, such as “Who Do You Think You Are?” and researching President Barack Obama’s ancestry. In this guest blog post, Duncan discusses the availability of genealogy records in various regions of the U.S. She concludes with a genealogy case study showing how old newspapers helped her break through a brick wall in her own family history research.

When researching family history in the United States, you will find vast differences in the availability of genealogy records in various regions. This is due to a myriad of reasons, including: who initially settled the area, what government was created, what occurred during the region’s history, what records were preserved, and the availability of those documents today to the researcher.

In this blog article, I’ll provide a quick overview of three major geographic areas in the United States: New England, the South, and the West. In each region, I will briefly discuss three issues from a genealogist’s perspective: settlement, government, and history. Keep in mind, to cover hundreds of years of history in such vast regions is not fully possible in a few paragraphs. Therefore, you will want to do additional research about your area of interest.

Although the extent of official government records and other vital records about your ancestors may vary from region to region, there is one constant that is true for all areas of the country: old newspapers, such as the large online collection in GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives, are a great genealogical resource.

At the end of this article, I’ll present a case study from my own family history research, showing how two 1895 newspaper articles let me finally break through a brick wall I had with one of my ancestors.

Genealogy Record Coverage in New England

the painting "Autumn in New England" by Maurice Prendergast

Painting: “Autumn in New England,” by Maurice Prendergast. Credit: Wikipedia.

Many diverse groups settled New England originally. Some came looking for the freedom to practice their religion, others to create a new utopia—but they had many things in common. The settlers generally believed that their local government was created for the benefit of society and should be actively supported, participated in, and abided by. Also, they were largely a well-educated people. These factors led to the creation of excellent community and church records, which delight current genealogical researchers.

For example, records exist for the large majority of marriages that occurred in New England prior to 1700! One book, New England Marriages Prior to 1700 by Gary Boyd Roberts, provides a “comprehensive listing of the 37,000 married couples, their marriage date or the birth year of a first child, the maiden names of 70% of the wives, the birth and death years of both partners and their residence.” From the earliest days of their settlements, these educated, orderly people were keeping detailed records. The keeping of vital records (birth, marriage, and death certificates) was instituted statewide in this region earlier than anywhere else in the country, beginning in the mid- to late-1800s in most cases. Contrast that history of record-keeping with some of the other regions of our nation, and you can see how unusual these records are.

New England has also had many thriving newspapers throughout its history, which provide coverage from 1690 to the present.

Genealogy Record Coverage in the South

the painting "A Home on the Mississippi" by Currier & Ives

Painting: A Home on the Mississippi, by Currier & Ives. Credit: Wikipedia.

The diverse groups that settled the South came for entirely different reasons than most New Englanders. They were here for economic reasons. The government and laws they created were primarily to protect their business interests. It was for the most part an elitist society where only the wealthy were allowed to vote and authoritarian rule was the norm. The majority of the population consisted of undereducated, poor workers and slave laborers who were not represented. Southerners were naturally distrustful of government and did not institute the official keeping of vital records until much later. Some Southern states did not begin recording this information until the early- to mid-1900s! Even census records can be challenging to use because Southerners would often provide middle names in one census and first names in the next, or only initials—particularly in the 1860 and 1870 censuses.

During the Civil War, Union soldiers intentionally targeted Southern courthouses to destroy records naming slaves as property. The first records that were reconstructed following the war were land and property records. Land was wealth that needed to be authenticated and protected. These reconstructed land records list the person currently owning the land and often an explanation of where they got it. This can include land received from a relative and, in some cases, their relationship to that person, which is invaluable documentation for genealogists. Land records are often called the “bread and butter” of the South by family historians, meaning they are the necessary documents to use in your research.

Tax records may have survived which will show men coming of age, and can be used to get an approximate age of an individual and the names of potential family members. Kentucky is one example where excellent tax records are available. Court and probate records, where they still exist, are priceless and can provide an abundance of crucial information. Southern church records can be another excellent source of birth, marriage and death information (as well as membership details). Of course, newspapers are also excellent records.

In addition to courthouses, Union soldiers also targeted newspaper printing presses, because newspapers were the main source of information for most people. Because they were in danger of destruction, some Southern newspapers temporarily suspended operation or moved further South where it was safer. The good news is that even if a particular newspaper and its archives were destroyed, many of its articles had been picked up and printed by multiple other papers and can still be found.

Genealogy Record Coverage in the West

the painting "Emigrants Crossing the Plains" by F. O. C. Darley

Painting: Emigrants Crossing the Plains by F. O. C. Darley. Credit: Wikipedia.

The West is an idea as much as a place; it brings up images of frontier towns and vast prairies. “The West” meant anything on the western border of civilization, which had different definitions during different time periods. It can mean the western edge of the colonies, west of British King George III’s 1763 proclamation line, west of the Mississippi River, etc. The people attracted to this frontier life were those escaping persecution from the rest of society, or those with a pioneering spirit. Although white people lived west of the proclamation line prior to the king’s declaration, the main western push was in 1798-1819. In addition to Dutch, German, and Polish people, one predominate group that settled west was the Scots-Irish. These people were often marginalized and used as a buffer between the Native people and the colonies. They had a fiercely independent spirit and were quick to move if an area became too populated, which can make them hard to track. They did not have “regular schooling” and did not keep many records. In fact, they were often hostile to record keepers such as tax collectors. News, on the other hand, was prized in these small communities and people often gathered to drink and share information. Newspapers played a vital role in communicating information throughout the West.

Other American Regions of Significance

Of course, this brief description of some of the larger regions of the nation excludes vital and colorful histories such as Texas, French Louisiana, Spanish Florida, and Native peoples, to name just a few.

Genealogy Research Tip

When conducting your own genealogy research, spend some time getting to know the area your ancestors lived in: why it was created, what government agencies had jurisdiction over it, what records were created, for what reasons, and where those records can be accessed. County histories are a valuable source of information, as are finding aids for the county in question. Try searching the county or city name on Google or Bing to see what information can be found. Look for all the records that might exist such as newspapers, land records, tax lists, church records, cemetery records, etc.

Tracing My Great Grandfather: a Case Study

Newspapers are a crucial genealogical resource for all time periods. Historically it did not cost readers anything to publish news in their local paper, and they used newspapers very much like we use Facebook and other social media sites today. Information in local newspapers can give the reasons behind events, and sometimes supply information to replace missing vital records. It is worth keeping in mind that news and information can travel, even if your ancestor did not.

A great example of this is the death of my great grandfather, Zachariah Nicholson. He disappeared from the records after the 1880 census, when he was an older farmer in a very small town in Indiana. I ran a search for him in GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives from 1880-1900 hoping to find out when and how he died, and found these two articles:

obituary for Zachariah Nocholson, Jackson Citizen Patriot newspaper article 19 January 1895

Jackson Citizen Patriot (Jackson, Michigan), 19 January 1895, page 7

obituary for Zachariah Nicholson, Evansville Courier and Press newspaper article 19 January 1895

Evansville Courier and Press (Evansville, Indiana), 19 January 1895, page 3

There are a few things to note about these two newspaper articles.

First, you’ll notice that his name in one article is spelled “Zachariah” and in the other it is spelled “Zacariah” without the middle “h.” You will want to check multiple spellings for a name, or search using an asterisk (*) as a wildcard to cover various possibilities.

Second, you’ll notice that the articles give slightly different information, emphasizing the importance of viewing multiple articles about the same event. One tidbit in the second article is the term “wealthy farmer.” The 1860 census lists his estate at $2100, which is sizable but not outlandish. Apparently it had grown by the time he died.  This is a reminder that I should look through the probate records for his will.

Last but not least, you will notice that one of these articles was printed in a Michigan newspaper, while the other was from his home state of Indiana. And as I mentioned, Grandpa Nicholson was from a very small town in Indiana—and yet a Michigan paper reported his death! As far as I know, there are no family connections with Michigan. The Jackson Citizen Patriot appears to be publishing information that would appeal to their readers in general. Perhaps some of their readers were from Southern Indiana or had business interests there. The point is: begin by doing a wide search, because information about your ancestor might turn up in newspapers published where you would not expect it.

I was surprised to find something about my small-town grandfather by doing a nationwide search—but I’m awfully glad that I did. I am grateful for these newspaper articles about Zachariah because they are the only documentation I have found to show when and how he died.

Genealogy Research Tip

Newspapers publish information from all around the country. Make sure you cast a wide net when searching for your ancestors in GenealogyBank because you never know where you might find information about them.