SSDI Quiz: Understanding the U.S. Social Security Death Index

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this guest blog post, Mary provides a fun quiz to see how well you know the U.S. Social Security Administration (SSA)—and the Social Security Death Index (SSDI) it maintains, an important resource for genealogists. Mary uses old newspaper articles to learn more about the SSA and SSDI.

One of the exciting features of GenealogyBank is the ability to search the Social Security Death Index (SSDI). This important genealogical database is updated by the United States Social Security Administration (SSA). GenealogyBank’s SSDI search page provides an easy way to access this data.

screenshot of GenealogyBank's search page for the Social Security Death Index (SSDI)

Not all the fields on the search page have to be filled in, and some of GenealogyBank’s SSDI features are the ability to:

  • specify a specific date or a range for a decedent’s birth and death
  • specify by zip code or last known residence, or non-U.S. location

Data from the U.S. SSDI is frequently misinterpreted. If you think you are well versed in the subject, try this handy Social Security Genealogy Quiz and then check your answers below.

Social Security Genealogy Quiz

When did the U.S. Social Security Administration (SSA) system start?

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act on 14 August 1935, but taxes for the system were not collected until January of 1937. For more information about the history of the Social Security system in America, see www.ssa.gov/history/hfaq.html.

Roosevelt Signs Security Act as Cameras Grind, San Diego Union newspaper article 15 August 1935

San Diego Union (San Diego, California), 15 August 1935, page 1

Who is covered by the Social Security program?

Many groups are/were exempt, including railroad workers, and certain employees of state and local governments and schools.

The railroad workers are covered by the Railroad Retirement Program, and contribute a portion of their wages to both systems with a calculation adjustment done at retirement. It’s a bit complicated, so please see U.S. Social Security Administration: An Overview of the Railroad Retirement Program.

Prior to 1983, when Congress changed the law, various municipalities and other groups had opted out of the Social Security system. For example, the Texas counties of Galveston, Brazoria, and Matagorda opted out of the system prior to 1983, and are covered under an independent system. After 1984, municipalities who had not previously opted out of the system were required to be covered by the SSA, along with civilian federal employees.

Does that include the President, Senators and Congressmen?

Yes. The SSA’s Frequently Asked Questions website states:

“All members of Congress, the President and Vice President, Federal judges, and most political appointees, were covered under the Social Security program starting in January 1984.”

Here we see the SSDI record for President Richard M. Nixon.

Social Security Death Index (SSDI) record for President Richard M. Nixon

Is the SSDI’s birth and death information reliable?

After 1974, proof was required to obtain a Social Security number (SSN). For persons who entered the system prior to that date, one should cross-reference birth dates with other records. Death dates are more reliable, as proof of death (such as a death certificate) has to be submitted in order to claim a death benefit.

Proof Now Required for Social Security, Chicago Metro News newspaper article 6 July 1974

Chicago Metro News (Chicago, Illinois), 6 July 1974, page 3

Does the SSDI report the location where a person passed away?

No. It reports the last known place of residence, or the final address where Social Security benefits were sent.

What are the three parts of a Social Security number (XXX-XX-XXXX)?

The three parts are, in order:

  1. the 3-digit area number (XXX),
  2. the 2-digit group number (XX)
  3. and the 4-digit serial number (XXXX).

The SSA maintains a table explaining the assignment of the numbers. For instance, Alabama was assigned numbers from 416-424, and Louisiana 433-439. However, the location doesn’t necessarily indicate a residence, and could indicate a variety of locations—ranging from where one applied for a card (not necessarily one’s residence) to an office that processed the application.

According to the document Meaning of the Social Security Number (Nov. 1982, Vol. 45, No. 11): Table 1.–Assignment of area numbers by State:

“Until 1972, the area number indicated the location (state, territory, or possession) of the Social Security office that issued the number. When the numbering system was developed, one or more area numbers were allocated to each State based on the anticipated number of issuances in the State. Because an individual could apply for a SSN at any Social Security office, the area code did not necessarily indicate where the person lived or worked. Since 1972…[the] area code now indicates the person’s State of residence as shown on the SSN application.

“The group number has no special geographic or data significance. It is used to break the numbers into blocks of convenient size for SSA’s processing operations and for controlling the assignments to the States.

“The last four digits, the serial number, represent a numerical series from 0001-9999 within each group…”

Will the SSA run out of Social Security numbers (SSNs)?

It is not known how many Social Security numbers have been issued. However, the nine-digit system allows for nearly one billion SSNs, so the current system has not run out of numbers.

Does the SSA reuse numbers?

No, although some people claim they do.

Does GenealogyBank have the ability to make corrections in the SSDI?

No. The Social Security’s Death Master File Data is supplied to publishers of the SSDI, so corrections have to be addressed with the U.S. SSA. GenealogyBank has no method to process updates to this government-supported system.

Does the SSA have a smart phone app?

Yes, although it does not include the Social Security Death Index.

On 6 May 2013 Carolyn W. Colvin, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, announced:

“…the agency is offering a new mobile optimized website, specifically aimed at smartphone users across the country. People visiting the agency’s website, www.socialsecurity.gov, via smartphone (Android, Blackberry, iPhone, and Windows devices) will be redirected to the agency’s new mobile-friendly site. Once there, visitors can access a mobile version of Social Security’s Frequently Asked Questions, an interactive Social Security number (SSN) decision tree to help people identify documents needed for a new/replacement SSN card, and mobile publications which they can listen to in both English and Spanish right on their phone.”

For more information, see: http://www.ssa.gov/pressoffice/pr/ssa-mobile-pr.html.

Note: if you experience issues with the SSA app on your smartphone, you can give Social Security a call (1-800-SSA-1213) to get help troubleshooting the issue.

Additional Social Security Resource for Genealogy

Acquiring Records from Social Security for Genealogical Research

History of Trains & Railroads: Locomotives, Steam Engines & More

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this guest blog post, Mary searches old newspapers for articles and ads about trains and locomotives, and discusses how important railroads were in the lives of our ancestors.

Trains & Railroads Shaped Early America

The importance of train travel cannot be overstated in the development of America, and its effect on how and why our ancestors traveled on land. Stagecoaches were an early transportation option, but once locomotives and steam engines proved their worth, travel by stagecoach became less frequent.

picture of a locomotive, Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper illustration 15 February 1892

Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 15 February 1892, page 5

Our nation’s great westward expansion took off, and trains became the favored mode of transportation until automobiles and air travel took over. Reading old newspaper articles to explore the history of train travel is a good way to better understand our ancestors’ lives and the times they lived in.

Steam Powers the Way

Early trains were powered by steam, but it may surprise you to learn that steam power was not a 19th Century invention. English inventor Thomas Savery (c.1650-1715) is given the credit for inventing steam power for transportation. He didn’t work on steam-powered trains, but this 1848 Connecticut newspaper article notes he did develop a steam engine for a rowing ship.

Thomas Savery the Engineer, Connecticut Courant newspaper article 28 October 1848

Connecticut Courant (Hartford, Connecticut), 28 October 1848, page 165

Although Savery received his steam engine patent in 1698, the first steam-powered engine didn’t arrive in the American Colonies until 1752 or 1753. Evidence of such a machine can be found in this 1753 Massachusetts newspaper article reporting that the Town of Charlestown was:

“so kind as to bring over their fine Water-Engine, which was of great Service in suppressing and preventing the Progress of the Fire.”

notice about a Charlestown, Massachusetts, fire engine, Boston Gazette newspaper article 13 February 1753

Boston Gazette (Boston, Massachusetts), 13 February 1753, page 3

A screw-driven steamboat was invented around 1802 by John Stevens. A Wikipedia article mentions he created a steam carriage around 1826 that ran on a track, but he was not the only one working on the concept.

There are several early newspaper reports of inventors working on steam carriages, including this 1822 New Jersey newspaper article about a petition for a steam carriage being presented on behalf of Isaac Baker, of Ohio.

notice about a patent petition from Isaac Baker for a steam-carriage, New Brunswick Fredonian newspaper article 14 February 1822

New Brunswick Fredonian (New Brunswick, New Jersey), 14 February 1822, page 2

The illustration below, from an 1826 Massachusetts newspaper, shows a 12-horsepower “loco-motive engine” used by the Helton Railroad in England.

picture of a locomotive, Boston Traveler newspaper illustration 7 March 1826

Boston Traveler (Boston, Massachusetts), 7 March 1826, page 4

Early Train & Railroad Companies

If you’ve played that famous board game “Monopoly,” you can surely guess the first railroad thought to have provided regularly-scheduled service.

Yes, it was the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad (B&O), chartered on 28 February 1827, to provide service from Baltimore, Maryland, to the Ohio River. It was capitalized with 15,000 shares at $100 each ($1,500,000), what must have seemed like a tremendous fortune at that time.

Perhaps your ancestors traveled on the great B&O, credited to have been the first U.S. company to offer scheduled passenger and freight service?

However, B&O was not the first charted train company. A search of GenealogyBank’s historical newspaper archives finds mention of other train companies. This 1825 Pennsylvania newspaper article reports a petition to incorporate and provide service from Wilkesbarre, Pennsylvania, “to the nearest point on the Delaware.”

petition to construct a Pennsylvania railroad, National Gazette newspaper article 15 December 1825

National Gazette (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 15 December 1825, page 1

This advertisement was published in an 1856 South Carolina newspaper, showing the Virginia Springs Central Railroad’s announcement that its opening line will travel 56 miles. Until the rail line is completed, the company’s stage coaches will continue to operate at fares ranging from $10 to $13.

railroad ad, Charleston Courier newspaper advertisement 11 September 1856

Charleston Courier (Charleston, South Carolina), 11 September 1856, page 3

We can all imagine the excitement generated by the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad on 10 May 1869 at Promontory Summit, in Utah Territory!

To commemorate the final joining, the railroad placed a golden spike and a silver railroad tie. This article from an 1869 New York newspaper reports that that the last spike would be engraved as follows:

“The last spike. The Pacific Railroad—ground broke January 8, 1863, completed May–, 1869. May God continue the unity of our country as this railroad unites the two great oceans of the world.”

The Silver Tie and Golden Spike, Evening Post newspaper article

Evening Post (New York, New York), 15 May 1869, page 4

There were many other train “firsts,” such as this article from an 1898 Minnesota newspaper commemorating the first Minneapolis Locomotive crossing the first railroad bridge across the Mississippi River “at this point.”

The First Minneapolis Locomotive, Minneapolis Journal newspaper article 12 February 1898

Minneapolis Journal (Minneapolis, Minnesota), 12 February 1898, page 14

Railroad Family History for Kids (and Adults)

The children of today may never know the joy of train travel, except as a novelty. To connect your children with this important part of American history, search the newspaper archives to see if any of their ancestors were connected with the railroad industry—that may spark their interest.

In addition to their surname, be sure to search for your railroad ancestors by their job title, such as conductor or switchman. Also search for railway pension records (which are in a separate system from Social Security).

Here is an example of an old newspaper article that may show your ancestors in the context of railroad travel. This 1857 Pennsylvania newspaper wedding announcement notes that the marriage of William C. Pitman and Miss F.A. Fuller occurred on a moving train that exceeded 40 miles per hour!

Pitman-Fuller wedding announcement, Public Ledger newspaper article 10 January 1857

Public Ledger (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 10 January 1857, page 5

This is just the tip of the iceberg for conducting research on how our ancestors were connected to trains, either by occupation or their desire to travel.

Websites and Documents of Interest

Cyndi’s List: Railroads >> Records: Administrative, Employment and Pensions

U.S. Railroad Retirement Board

“I’ve Been Working on the Railroad”

The original title of “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” was “The Levee Song,” published in 1894 in a book of songs published by Princeton University titled Carmina Princetonia. If you search GenealogyBank you can locate several references to this famous song, including this one.

"I've Been Working on the Railroad" song, Evansville Courier and Press newspaper article 30 August 1920

Evansville Courier and Press (Evansville, Indiana), 30 August 1920, page 2

Have fun filling in the lives of your ancestors and the times they lived in with railroad and train stories. You never know what you’ll discover about your family history!

My Ancestor’s Menu: Researching Food History in Newspapers

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this guest blog post, Gena searches through historical newspaper archives and finds old menus—and shows how these provide social history that helps us better understand our ancestors’ times.

When was the last time you ate out? How often did you eat out as a child? While for some of us eating in a restaurant was a rare treat growing up because of where we lived or finances, eating out in today’s world is a more common occurrence. For modern families whose time is overscheduled, sitting down to a meal that mom prepared (with love) can seem like something out of the 1950s. Increasingly we are relying on restaurants to help with our cooking chores. Although it can seem like going out to eat is more of a recent phenomenon, the truth is that our ancestors, depending on circumstance, may have enjoyed a meal out once in a while.

Probably not surprisingly, restaurants originated in France in the 18th century and catered to upper class patrons. Early Americans, typically men, had the opportunity to “eat out” as they traveled and stayed in taverns and inns. One restaurant that opened in the early 19th century and still exists today is the New York institution Delmonico’s, which originally opened in 1827 as a pastry shop. Early customers of Delmonico’s were treated to a vast selection of foods; its 1838 menu was 11 pages in length and included French dishes with their English translations.

Gossip from Gotham: Delmonico's--The Most Fashionable Restaurant of the Continent, San Francisco Bulletin newspaper article, 19 January 1884

San Francisco Bulletin (San Francisco, California), 19 January 1884, page 4

One surprising aspect of researching ancestral food history in newspapers is that your assumptions may be proved wrong. A good example of this can be found in this 1898 newspaper article. It reports on Thanksgiving being served at local Cleveland (Ohio) hotels. Today, some families would never think of going to a restaurant for Thanksgiving, labeling it “untraditional”—and you might assume our ancestors felt that way, too. However, judging from this article it seems that eating Thanksgiving dinner at a restaurant was something many of our ancestors did. This article states that “Hundreds of guests were entertained by the hostelries yesterday, for many Clevelanders preferred to dine down town rather than at their own homes.” The article goes on to provide names of those who dined at those hotels. What a great genealogical find to see the name of an ancestor and where they were eating on Thanksgiving Day.

Thanksgiving at the Hotels, Plain Dealer newspaper article 25 November 1898

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 25 November 1898, page 10

Restaurant menus found in newspapers show the types of food available to your ancestors. In this example of a 1909 Sunday dinner menu from South Dakota, 25 cents buys quite a meal!

Sunday Dinner at the Model Restaurant, Aberdeen American newspaper article 18 April 1909

Aberdeen American (Aberdeen, South Dakota), 18 April 1909, page 5

This 1903 Sunday dinner menu from Wichita, Kansas, costs 20 cents and includes dishes such as Irish Stew and Prime Beef.

Menu at the People's Restaurant, Colored Citizen newspaper article 31 October 1903

Colored Citizen (Wichita, Kansas), 31 October 1903, page 3

One great aspect of newspaper research is the reminder that fads can and do make comebacks. Case in point: calories printed on menus. Think that the printing of calories is a new idea to get all of us to make healthier food choices? Consider this article about the appearance of calories on menus—in 1918! Makes you wonder why the reporting of calories eventually fell out of favor. My guess is people want to enjoy their meal out without guilt.

Aha! A New One--Restaurants Put Calories Count on Menu, Times-Picayune newspaper article 12 May 1918

Times-Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana), 12 May 1918, page 9

Although today we are familiar with calories and how much is too much, the idea of watching your calories was a new one at the beginning of the 20th century. This article concludes with suggested total amounts of calories needed for different types of people, including laundresses who needed 3000 calories versus a secretary who needed just 2000.

Newspapers provide researchers with rich social history and help us better understand our ancestors’ times. Take an afternoon and peruse the food history printed in the newspaper of your ancestors’ hometown. You just might be surprised at what you find.

Carnegie Libraries: A History of Library Philanthropy from Steel

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this guest blog post Gena writes about a resource beloved by genealogists, the local library—and how thousands were built thanks to the generosity of businessman, steel magnate and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie.

Many genealogists are thankful for a resource that helps them immensely with their family history research: the local library. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, communities throughout the English-speaking world owed their local libraries to the generosity of one man: businessman, steel magnate and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie.

Between the years 1883 and 1929, more than 2,500 libraries were built with donated Carnegie money, including a staggering 1,689 in the United States alone!

A recent History Channel mini-series, “The Men Who Built America,” told the story of those late 19th century tycoons who helped industrialize and bring innovation to the United States, including Andrew Carnegie. While the wealth that Carnegie amassed building his steel empire later benefitted the public, he was not without controversy. Along with his business success, Carnegie was also known for his indirect roles in the tragedies of the 1889 Johnstown Flood and the deadly Homestead Strike in 1892. Carnegie, no matter how benevolent, was not a universally-liked man during his time.

While he spent his working years building Carnegie Steel, his later years were devoted to philanthropy including establishing thousands of libraries in the United States, the United Kingdom and other English-speaking countries. Carnegie wrote that the rich had a moral obligation to distribute their wealth, and that is what he did—and continues to do long after his death in 1919, thanks to endowments set up during his lifetime.*

Was your town granted money for a Carnegie library? To secure a new library, communities had to write a letter requesting funding. They were then provided a form to fill out with questions about the community’s present library and finances. Funding for a Carnegie library was not an outright gift. Those seeking funding were required to provide the land and funding for the continued operation and maintenance of the library each year, about 10% of the initial funding amount.**

Though these conditions made some communities angry, who saw them as a drain on taxpayer money, others understood the educational opportunity made possible by the offer of a Carnegie library. The first Carnegie library in the United States was opened in 1902 in New York City.

Here is an example of an announcement in an old newspaper for the approval of a library in the California town of Nevada City.

Carnegie Library for Nevada City, Evening News newspaper article 29 February 1904

Evening News (San Jose, California), 29 February 1904, page 1

This library building still stands and now houses the Doris Foley Library for Historical Research, a research facility for Nevada County history.

While some of those Carnegie-funded libraries still exist and function as active libraries, including the one pictured below in the Southern California town of Beaumont, there are many that have not stood the test of time or were converted to other uses.

photo of the Carnegie library in Beaumont, California

Photo: Carnegie-funded library in Beaumont, California. Credit: Gena Philibert-Ortega.

In some cases a city’s growing population meant that a bigger library was eventually needed. This happened in San Diego, whose booming population outgrew its cramped library (opened in 1902) over the decades. That San Diego library was the first Carnegie library in California.

photo of the Carnegie library in San Diego about to be demolished, San Diego Union newspaper photograph 17 July 1952

San Diego Union (San Diego, California), 17 July 1952, page 3

Interested in learning more about Carnegie libraries? Here are some websites for Carnegie libraries and images:

Want to know even more about Carnegie libraries? The Andrew Carnegie Collection housed at the Carnegie Mellon University Libraries includes documents regarding Carnegie libraries.

* History Channel. Andrew Carnegie. http://www.history.com/topics/andrew-carnegie. Accessed 31 March 2013.

** Determining the Facts. Reading 2: Obtaining a Carnegie Library http://www.nps.gov/nr/twhp/wwwlps/lessons/50carnegie/50facts3.htm. Accessed 31 March 2013.

Have You Participated in a DNA Study for Ancestry Research?

Have you tried a genetic DNA study as an approach to learning more about your family history?

If so, have you made family connections that you wouldn’t have found otherwise?

It is essential that you participate in a DNA study as soon as possible. Doing so will save time, and give you a clearer picture of your family history that will bridge the gaps where other genealogical records simply have not survived.

In the past, I avoided participating in a genetic DNA study because of the high cost and the sense that it wouldn’t prove anything about my ancestry.

Well, times have changed.

The cost of participating in DNA studies has dropped to very affordable levels and the results are surprising. DNA testing will allow you to clearly see how distinct groups with your surname are or are not related to you.

Genetic DNA Testing for Genealogy Image

Image Credit: Image by jscreationzs at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Imagine being able to sort through records for our family searching not just the surname coupled with a place of birth—but being able to narrow our search to the correct DNA haplogroup, Y-DNA 12 or deeper identifiers so that we can limit our search results to only our relatives.

If you were not sure which Miller, Stark or Sawyer individuals written up in thousands of obituaries were your relatives, knowing which DNA group they fell in would quickly help you to focus on the ones that you are related to.

A few months ago I heard from a researcher in Scotland who was spearheading a study of “Kemp” lines from Ireland, and in particular the Kemp families of County Cavan, Ireland. He wanted to determine if they were all related or if they actually were separate, unrelated families.

A quick search of other DNA projects found a Kemp study already underway, organized by Andrew Kemp in Australia. Efforts were made to find more Kemp men from all parts of the world who would be willing to participate. Seventy-five agreed and the results are still coming in.

I have been researching my Kemp family from County Cavan for the past 50 years. In piecing together the family tree I found that over the past 250 years my family—like so many Irish American families—has been continuously growing and migrating around the world, settling in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Germany and all across the United States.

As I looked at the big picture I could see that there were large concentrations of Kemp families in England, Germany, Sweden and almost everywhere I looked. Were they all related? It is going to take a long time to examine each Kemp household and see how they connect to each other. Since the bulk of the historical family records simply did not survive, there just aren’t records that would prove how these Kemp groups were or were not related—until now.

Unbelievable.

The results of the genetic DNA study were clearly showing which of the Kemp groups are in fact related.

For example: there is the Johann Conrad Kemp group. He was born in Germany in 1685 and settled in Frederick County, Maryland. The DNA study reports that his descendants are in the E1b1b1 haplogroup.

There is a Kemp family group in County Cork, Ireland. A look at the results for all of the descendants participating in this DNA study shows that they are in the R1b1a2 group.

So—the County Cork group and the Germany/Frederick County Kemp groups are not related.

Knowing where not to look for family connections will save genealogists a lot of time.

What about the large Kemp family in England? Over 25 living descendants have participated in this DNA project and all of them are also in the R1b1a2 haplogroup.

So the County Cork, Ireland, Kemp family group clearly should look to England to document their family connections.

There is a Kemp line in the Bahamas. Since that is a part of the British Commonwealth, perhaps they are also descended from a Kemp line in England. But, DNA testing shows that they fall in the I1 haplogroup common to Scandinavia. So, another completely separate Kemp family line.

Where did my Scotch-Irish County Cavan Kemp line fall?

They are all in the R1a1 haplogroup.

So—they are not related to the English, Maryland/German or Bahamian Kemp groups.

But, look at this genetic testing find: they are related to the Kemp family of Wake County, North Carolina.

The Wake County Kemp family descends from Richard Kemp who was born about 1715 in Scotland and settled in Wake County. His descendants have spread across the southern states. They are in the R1a1a haplogroup.

There are no surviving old genealogical records that can help genealogists connect the multiple Kemp lines, but DNA is now clearly showing us which groups are or are not related.

In the decades ahead we will be able to use the basic DNA haplogroups and full DNA sequencing as additional data that we can search on to extend our family trees.

What a great day for genealogy!

2013 Family History Expo Conference in St. George a Great Success

Over 700 genealogists packed the lecture halls at the Dixie Center in St. George, Utah, this past weekend to get training and sharpen their genealogy research skills at the 2013 Family History Expo.

Family History Expos logo

Family History Expos logo

James Tanner’s opening keynote remarks, “Top 10 Techniques,” made it clear that newspapers are critical to documenting our family history.

photo of James Tanner

Photo: James Tanner. Credit: Family History Expos.

That same point was made again and again by speakers at this year’s Family History Expo. With conference sessions like: “Newspaper, Critical Resource to Document Your Family Tree” by Thomas Jay Kemp; “Preservation Techniques for Documents, Newspapers and Photos” by Sharon Monson; “Tracing Colonial Immigrants” by Nathan Murphy; and “Obituaries—Clues to Look For” also by Tom Kemp, the importance of newspapers to genealogy research was made clear. All the conference talks were popular and well attended.

Among the dozens of presentations there were some new services announced, like the new FamilySearch Photos service that is available online in a Beta release. This new family tree tool allows users of the free Family Trees on FamilySearch.org to incorporate photos into their online tree. This feature allows genealogists to upload images of their ancestors, tag/identify ancestors in the photos, and associate the tagged ancestors in the photos to the Family Tree.

The family history conference covered a wide variety of sessions ranging from: German, French, Scandinavian and English genealogy research; to preparing your family history, letters and documents for publication in print or online.

One novel approach to genealogy was discussed during Marlo E. Schuldt’s presentation “It’s Time to Do a Slideshow Biography.” The slideshow biography format may be the answer you have been looking for. It’s an easy way to share a life sketch or family history that is online and visual, and can engage people in their heritage in a new way.

Here are links to download the PowerPoint decks Tom covered at the FH Expo:

Newspapers: A Critical Resource to Complete Your Family Tree
Top Genealogy Websites for the 21st Century

How to Do Genealogy Research with German-Language Newspapers

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this guest blog post, Mary writes about resources and techniques to help you find family history information in foreign-language newspapers, even if you’re not familiar with that language.

GenealogyBank’s recent announcement that it is adding Italian American newspapers in 2013 is a welcome addition—but it may also concern family history researchers who are nervous about navigating foreign languages.

However, there are certain resources and techniques you can use to find valuable genealogical information in foreign-language newspapers, even if you have limited—or no—familiarity with the language, as this article explains.

My roots include a number of German immigrants who settled in various parts of Pennsylvania. By using specific techniques, I have been able to locate information about these ancestors from the German American newspapers in GenealogyBank’s online historical newspaper archives.

Some of these German-language newspapers include:

  • Cincinnati Volksfreund (Cincinnati, Ohio)
  • Der Wahre Amerikaner (Lancaster, Pennsylvania)
  • Der Zeitgeist (Egg Harbor City, New Jersey)
  • Deutsche Porcupein (Lancaster, Pennsylvania)
  • Egg Harbor Pilot (Egg Harbor City, New Jersey)
  • Highland Union (Highland, Illinois)
  • New Jersey Deutsche Zeitung (Newark, New Jersey)
  • Nordwestliche Post (Sunbury, Pennsylvania)
  • Reading Adler (Reading, Pennsylvania)
  • New Yorker Volkszeitung (New York, New York)
  • Northumberland Republicaner (Sunbury, Pennsylvania)
  • Unparteyische Harrisburg Morgenroethe Zeitung (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania)

When presented with a language hurdle in your genealogy research, try not to be intimidated.

By employing a free language translator such as Google Translate and consulting foreign genealogical word lists, you may be able to determine the gist of a notice, such as the two death notices shown in the following illustration. They report that the decedents died (“starb”) on last Sunday night (“Sontag Nacht”), and on last Monday morning (“Montag Morgen”), respectively.

death notices from German-language newspapers

Death notices from German-language newspapers

Some of my family’s notices were published in the Reading Adler (Reading, Pennsylvania), which published alternately in both English and German.

Daniel Miesse obituary, Reading Adler newspaper article 14 April 1818

Reading Adler (Reading, Pennsylvania), 14 April 1818, page 2

This particular German-language obituary relates to my ancestor Daniel Miesse (28 January 1743, Elsoff, Germany to 1 April 1818, Berks County, Pennsylvania), who died in Bern Township in the 76th year of his age. This death notice was a bit more challenging to understand, since several German terms did not translate directly. For example, the first word (“Berstarb”) stumped me, but I was able to figure out that it corresponded to the term “verstarb” (died).

An interesting explanation of the interchangeability of Germanic letters can be found in Family Search’s German Word List.

Its explanation notes that “spelling rules were not standardized in earlier centuries,” so variations are common. It is best to substitute letters, if you cannot make a definitive translation, or to do a reverse look-up by querying obvious terms. For example, choose a word in English that you might assume to be in a foreign notice. Then, translate it into your target language (e.g., German).

This blog article would not be complete without noting that search engines are often type-face-challenged; being persistent and varying your queries is central to finding ancestral notices in foreign-language newspapers.

While researching my genealogy, I sometimes query with German terms whose meanings I have learned over the years: “taufe” or “taufen” helps locate christenings; “heiraten” finds marriages; and husband or wife can be found by searching on the terms “mann,” “ehermann” and “gatte,” or “ehegattin,” “frau” and “gattin.”

Generally, search software does a fine job in responding to queries, by employing sophisticated “optical character recognition” (OCR) techniques—which is the process by which the computer makes an electronic conversion of scanned images.

However, it sometimes does not produce the desired results. Reasons vary, but foreign publications often used different type styles, such as German Fraktur, Blackletter and Gothic type, and foreign languages may include letters of the alphabet which do not exist in English.

And even old English presents a unique situation—since archaic spellings changed over time. The classic example is the interchangeable use of ff and ss, as seen in this 18th century spelling of possessed.

the word "possessed" as spelled in an 18th century newspaper

The word “possessed” as spelled in an 18th century newspaper

Hopefully, by employing these techniques, you will be able to successfully navigate a variety of foreign-language newspapers. Don’t be intimidated! Plunge right in—you may be agreeably surprised by what you find out about your family history.

Ancestry Believe It or Not: Genealogy Scams, Fakes & Forgers

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this guest blog post, Mary writes about genealogical fakes and frauds, and cautions readers to be careful in documenting their family history.

You can’t always believe what you read—or can you?

Genealogy, when done right, is a pursuit requiring patience, with family relationships being carefully established and well documented. But be wary when constructing your family tree; examine each piece of evidence with a critical eye.

Exaggerations abound in genealogy, many of which can be categorized under the “Believe It or Not” phrase made famous by Robert. L. Ripley (1890-1949).

In order to “prove” more impressive ancestry than they actually have, scoundrels and frauds sometimes doctor documents, create fictitious Bible records, and even sell services to unsuspecting family researchers.

Some of the more notorious genealogy fakes and forgers were Gustave Anjou, Harriet de Salis and Horatio Gates Somerby.

Gustave Anjou (1863-1942), a.k.a. Swedish native Gustaf Ludvig Jungberg

Anjou immigrated to America from Sweden, after being released from incarceration in 1886, reportedly on a forgery charge. He became active in genealogical societies in the New Jersey and New York areas, and proceeded to sell his services as a researcher to wealthy citizens. His specialty was fabricating descent from royal lineages.

Some of his more infamous works included supposed lineages for the families of Andrews, Dent, Duff, Grant, Houston, Hurd, Longyear, Shapleigh, Wyckoff, and many more genealogical frauds. He also published a reference on the Ulster Country, New York, Probate Records. For a more thorough list of his junk genealogies, conduct a search in WorldCat or Google Books.

Gustave Anjou’s passport photo (1924)

Gustave Anjou’s passport photo (1924)

Even Anjou’s name is a sham or half-truth. His passport application of 1924 reported his father as “Charles Gustave Marie Anjou” and that he was born in Paris, France. This fabrication was derived from his parents’ names, Carl Gustaf Jungberg and housekeeper, Maria Lovia Hapberg, along with the Anjou reference from his fiancée (later wife), Anna Maria Anjou. The passport application noted he was naturalized in 1918 and that he was following the occupation of genealogist.

Gustave Anjou’s passport application (1924)

Gustave Anjou’s passport application (1924)

References to Anjou’s association with genealogy can be found in New York City records:

  • The New York City Directory of 1910 reported: “British-Am Record Soc, 116 Nassau R [Residence] 1116—C. Percy Hurditch, Pres; Gustave Anjou, Sec.”
  • The New York City Directory of 1912 reported: “Am Genealogical Soc., 116 Nassau R 1117—Gustave Anjou, Sec.”

In the following historical newspaper article, we can see the ripple effect of Anjou’s fraudulent genealogy work. A New Orleans newspaper’s Genealogical Department ran a feature called “Who’s Who and Their Forbears,” and innocently quoted Anjou’s work assuming it was authentic.

Who’s Who and Their Forbears, Times-Picayune newspaper article 11 August 1912

Times-Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana), 11 August 1912, page 34

Mrs. Harriet de Salis, nee Bainbridge

De Salis was a noted cookbook author. The title of one of her publications, Tempting Dishes for Small Incomes published in 1903, seems to hold a “secret message” about her second career: junk genealogy. Her culinary skills apparently didn’t generate enough income, so she turned to providing a fraudulent genealogy service, much like Anjou.

Some of her noted counterfeits were submitted by her eager clients to the New England Historical and Genealogical Register (NEHGR) . Unfortunately for de Salis, NEHGR researchers typically investigate exuberant ancestral claims, as seen in this 1943 response pointedly remarking on de Salis’s “vivid imagination”:

“The wills of ‘Edward’ and ‘Valentine’ [Woodman] appear to have been the offspring of Harriet de Salis’ vivid imagination—at least no such wills can now be found. After this auspicious beginning she proceeded to construct a wondrous pedigree making Nicholas the ancestor of the two New England progenitors and deducing his descent from all the ancient and gentle family of Woodman of Surrey.”

The New England Historical and Genealogical Register, Vol. 97, p. 282 (1943).

Little mention of de Salis appears in GenealogyBank. Her death date and obituary were not located in its vast historical newspaper archives. Interestingly, however, there is a mention of de Salis in GenealogyBank’s United States Congressional Serial Set archives, referring to her 1888 oyster cookbook.

mention of Harriet De Salis's 1888 oyster cookbook in the U.S. Congressional Serial Set

United States Commission of Fish and Fisheries, Part XVIII. Report of the Commissioner for the year ending June 30, 1892. Date: Monday, January 1, 1894. Publication: Serial Set Vol. No.3264; Report: H.Misc.Doc. 209.

Horatio Gates “H. G.” Somerby (1805-1872)

Somerby, a native of Newburyport, Massachusetts, moved to England, where he fabricated genealogies for Americans wishing to establish English origins.

WorldCat and Google Books report a variety of publications on families that feature suspect genealogical work done by Somerby, such as The Blakes of Somerset, John Cotton of Boston, The Searstan Family of Colchester, Pedigree of Lawrence, A Sketch of the Family of Dumaresq, and Notices of the Sears Family.

GenealogyBank’s newspapers report that a man by the name of “Horatio B. Somerby” was a witness at a forgery trial. Although the middle initial is incorrect, it may be a typo. One has to wonder about the association with a noted forger, especially one with New England connections, and suspect this is really Horatio G. Somerby.

forgery trial report, Boston Herald newspaper article 13 October 1848

Boston Herald (Boston, Massachusetts), 13 October 1848, page 2

GenealogyBank has a brief notice of his death in London, but this death notice makes no mention of his background in fraudulent genealogy.

Horatio Somerby death notice, Salem Register newspaper article 5 December 1872

Salem Register (Salem, Massachusetts), 5 December 1872, page 2

There are numerous examples of scammers, frauds, fakes and forgers in genealogical research, so remember the famous words of Ripley: “Believe It or Not,” and be careful documenting your family history to keep it real!

Fact or Myth: Did Horace Greeley Really Say ‘Go West Young Man’?

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this guest blog post, Mary explains how research on her ancestor led her to investigate if Horace Greeley really said “Go West young man.”

Whether your forebears have roots to the Mayflower, settlements on the western frontier, or Ellis Island, your ancestral migration patterns are certain to fascinate you as you research your family history—and at the same time, be a puzzlement.

Did they migrate to avoid religious persecution, serve the military (ex. Hessian soldiers paid during the American Revolution), find freedom from slavery—or were they simply seeking a new life or quick fortune, such as during the California Gold Rush (1848-1859)?

Whatever factors influenced your ancestors, newspapers are a resource rich in information that can clarify or debunk misconceptions about how or why your ancestors lived their lives. You can use historical news articles not only to discover the truth about your ancestors’ lives, but also to validate the facts surrounding events and other items relevant to your family history.

Take, for example, Horace Greeley (1811-1872), the influential newspaper publisher of the New York Tribune, and the famous quote attributed to him: “Go West young man.” I have a special connection with Greeley, as my great great grandmother, Mary Jane (Olmstead) (King) (Hanks) Stanton, tutored his children as a way to support herself after being widowed.

Greeley reportedly inspired America’s massive westward expansion in the second half of the 19th century by urging: “Go West young man; go West and grow up with the country.”

My ancestor Mary Jane heeded his advice and visited California around 1869-1870 with her second husband, Jesse Turner Hanks, a successful gold miner. He later became a superintendent of a gold mine, which paid him $5,000 a year in gold. He unfortunately died in 1872 and the money disappeared, so she began authoring books and returned east. She joined the suffrage movement, associating herself with suffragette Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the other well-known champions of women’s voting rights in Willamantic.

Mary Jane and her third husband, newspaper business manager A. P. Stanton (distantly related to the above), settled in California, where she became a successful author on phrenology (a pseudo science no longer accepted) and continued her work for women’s voting rights. She did not live long enough to see the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment on 18 August 1920. However, her obituary from the San Francisco Chronicle notes she lived long enough to witness the success of suffrage in her adopted state.

Devoted Life to Woman's Suffrage, San Francisco Chronicle newspaper article 12 March 1914

San Francisco Chronicle (San Francisco, California), 12 March 1914, page 9

From time to time I continue to search for specific evidence of her life events, but what generally happens is that I uncover unexpected items in my genealogical research. That is how, one day, I began exploring the factual validity of Horace Greeley’s well-established quote, “Go West young man; go West and grow up with the country.”

Some writers report that Greeley’s famous quote is from the New York Tribune of 13 July 1865, in which he allegedly said:

“Washington is not a place to live in. The rents are high, the food is bad, the dust is disgusting and the morals are deplorable. Go West, young man, go West and grow up with the country.”

That claim will stump you, as the attribution has been misapplied: that quote does not appear in the 13 July 1865 edition of the New York Tribune. GenealogyBank’s archives show that a more likely source for Greeley’s quote is from a 13 December 1867 editorial expressing opposition to a wage increase for federal government clerks. Rather than increasing their salaries, Greeley suggests they should emigrate to a better life out West. Greeley stated:

“Washington is not a nice place to live in. The rents are high, the food is bad, the dust is disgusting, the mud is very deep, and the morals are deplorable. But on a farm in the West these dissatisfied young men could not only make money, and live decently, but also be of some use to the country.”

Note nowhere does he say “Go West young man” or “grow up with the country.”

Horace Greeley editorial, New York Herald-Tribune newspaper article 13 December 1867

New York Herald-Tribune (New York, New York), 13 December 1867, page 4

The response to Greeley’s controversial statement was immediate, particularly in the Evening Star—which put an editorial on its front page the very next day rebutting Greeley and taking the position that the workers were deserving of a wage increase.

Twenty Per Cent., Evening Star newspaper article 14 December 1867

Evening Star (Washington, D.C.), 14 December 1867, page 1

The Evening Star’s rebuttal is worth quoting in its entirety:

“We regret that the New York Tribune should so persistently oppose the twenty per cent. increase of the salaries of the Government clerks in this city. The last article on the subject in that paper, in which the editor advises them, if they cannot live here, to emigrate to Kansas or Nebraska [correction: Nevada], is an unfortunate one for the opponents of “20 per cent.,” because the assertions that “Washington is not a nice place to live in,” and that “the rents are high, the food is bad, the dust is disgusting, the mud is very deep, and the morals are deplorable,” would, if they were true, be the strongest possible arguments why those so unfortunate are to be compelled to live and labor here should be well paid for their work. The proper and prompt administration of the affairs of the Government requires the services in this city of a great number of intelligent employees. These duties must be performed by some one, and if all who are competent go to farming, what will become of the public business! We are told that if the clerks are dissatisfied with their pay they can leave, as there are others who will take the places for the pay. No doubt. So there are plenty of needy men who would undertake to make a watch or run an engine for good pay, who know nothing of the construction of either. There are now in the Departments here, many gentlemen and ladies of great intellectual ability occupying responsible positions, whose services save the Government thousands of dollars annually, and whose salaries are totally inadequate. They cannot save a cent, and advising them to go west to till the soil, is very much like the advice of another New York paper to starving laborers in that city, to buy small farms and raise vegetables for the city markets.”

It is reported that Greeley disavowed ever making the “Go west” statement, but the myth is perpetuated to this day.

Some feel that the statement originated with others, such as John B. L. Soule from the Terre Haute Express of 1851. This claim can also be debunked, as it is predated by a report in the Irish American Weekly in 1850 that states: “Yes, the advice is right—come West, do something, and ‘grow up with the country.’”

Good Advice to Those Who Think of Coming West, Irish American Weekly newspaper article 29 June 1850

Irish American Weekly (New York, New York), 29 June 1850, page 4

However, even this 1850 newspaper article cannot be the source, as proved by this even earlier 1846 quote by South Carolina Senator John Caldwell Calhoun (1782-1850). He was interviewed by Sarah Mytton Maury, an English writer who spent a winter in Washington and later published a book quoting Calhoun urging her sons to come to America: “let them grow up with the country.”

“I have eight sons in England.”

“Bring them all here; we are an exulting nation; let them grow up with the country; besides, here they do not want wealth. I would not be rich in America, for the care of money would distract my mind from more important concerns.”

—Maury, Sarah Mytton: The Statesmen of America in 1846. Philadelphia: Carey and Hart, 1847, p. 182.

So what is the lesson learned from this fact-finding investigation?

The lesson is to follow this sound genealogy advice: always seek confirming sources for any record, including family provenance—and be sure to indulge your curiosity by reading historical reports from actual time periods.

You will undoubtedly be able to debunk many myths about your own family history!

Ephemera: A Surprisingly Fertile Genealogical Resource

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this guest blog post, Gena writes about an unusual—but a personal favorite—source of family history information: ephemera.

As I research my family history I look forward to finding unusual sources that reveal different aspects of my ancestor’s life beyond what an online index provides. One unusual source I find myself searching for is ephemera. In fact, I LOVE ephemera.

What’s ephemera you ask? Well one of the official definitions is “paper items (such as posters, broadsides, and tickets) that were originally meant to be discarded after use but have since become collectibles” (from Miriam Webster). At first glance that may seem to refer to only a few items but, according to the Ephemera Society of America, the Encyclopedia of Ephemera lists 500 categories of ephemera. Vintage ephemera can provide details of your ancestor’s life, even vital record information, or a specific place and time for them.

ephemera example: wedding anniversary invitation

Ephemera example: wedding anniversary invitation. From the author’s collection.

In genealogical terms it can include everything from your grandparents’ World War II ration books, a Christmas card your great-grandparents sent out, newspaper clippings of obituaries and marriage announcements, to the letters your 4th great-grandfather wrote from the battlefield during the Civil War. But it’s even more than that. In some cases it may be tidbits that provide social history information like a World War I recruitment poster or a menu from the first restaurant in your hometown.

ephemera example: restaurant menu

Ephemera example: restaurant menu. From the author’s collection.

Not everyone fully embraces ephemera in genealogical research. Why? These types of historical records can be difficult to find. In searching for ephemera that has your ancestor’s name on it you will need to start with home sources. When I refer to a home source, I’m not just suggesting looking for items in your home. Ask your family members about any types of items they may have inherited. In some cases family members may not realize what genealogical treasures they have. It might take several discussions where you reminisce or conduct an interview before they remember some of the items they have been holding on to.

I recently blogged about a letter I found in my childhood stamp collection that was given to me by my maternal grandmother. She had given me the letter to keep because of its interesting stamp. As I read this long-forgotten letter, I realized it contained important genealogical information from her own research on an English family line from the 1800s.

Cast your genealogical fishing line far and wide, and reach out to a distant unknown cousin who may have an heirloom or a forgotten item in their home. Utilizing social media can help get the word out about your research. Consider using a blog, website, Twitter or Facebook as just some of the ways to help other researchers find you.

ephemera example: graduation exercises brochure

Ephemera example: graduation exercises brochure. From the author’s collection.

Ephemera can also be found in collections housed at archives, libraries, societies and museums. One way to find these types of historical collections is to search either the repository’s catalog or a union catalog (one that includes multiple repositories), such as ArchiveGrid or the National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections (NUCMC). When researching collections, search on the place your ancestor was from to find materials that might have originated with an acquaintance or neighbor. Also consider groups and organizations your ancestor was a member of when searching through collections.

ephemera example: postcard

Ephemera example: postcard. From the author’s collection.

Do you have ephemera from your family or someone else’s? Consider sharing this by scanning and posting it on the Internet. Several non-genealogy blogs share ephemera they have found or collected. Check out Forgotten Bookmarks, Paper Great, and Permanent Record for ideas of how others are sharing ephemera. By sharing their genealogical finds and collections they make it possible for descendants to be reunited with their family history.