Hit a Brick Wall? 4 Genealogy Tips to Break Through

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this blog article, Gena provides four tips to help solve a problem every genealogist runs into: the dreaded “brick wall,” when you don’t know where to turn or what to do to find information on an elusive ancestor.

Do you ever find yourself frustrated by your genealogy research? Maybe you feel like you’ve looked everywhere and will never find that missing ancestor. Family history research is a careful process and it takes a lot longer than we would often like. Genealogical records are incomplete, transcriptions have errors, not everything is found online, and your ancestor had no control over how others spelled or misspelled their name.

photo of a brick wall in English cross bon pattern

Photo: brick wall in English cross bon pattern. Credit: Oula Lehtinen; Wikimedia Commons.

So yes, you will hit that genealogy brick wall, multiple times. How can you get over that persistent obstacle?

1) Take a Genealogy Research Break

You may be scratching your head and wondering why I’m suggesting that you take a break from your family history research before trying to break through your brick wall. It’s really very simple. We all benefit from stepping away from a problem for a time, whether momentarily or for a longer stretch. Putting your genealogy research away allows you time to ponder, as well as learn about new resources and methodologies.

How do you make the most out of your research break? Take some time to enhance your genealogy research skills by reading books that teach methodology or expose you to record sets you’ve never used. Some of my favorite genealogy books are The Family Tree Guidebook to Europe, The Genealogists’ Google Toolbox and The Family Tree Problem Solver.

Also during your research break, take advantage of webinars and other genealogy learning opportunities. Explore your local library or a nearby archival collection. By exploring different library and archival catalogs you can learn more about what family history resources exist for the place and time period you are researching.

To get started, conduct some searches on the FamilySearch catalog. Search on the name of the place you are researching, and continue your hunt by conducting a keyword search – for example, utilizing words that describe an ancestor’s religion or occupation.

2) Strategize Your Next Research Step

Where do you look for ancestral records now? What do you do if you can’t find an ancestor in records where you think they should be, like a census record? What do you do then?

Take some time to plan out your next genealogy research steps. One way to do this is to put together a Research Plan. A Genealogy Research Plan allows you to clarify what you are looking for, what you currently know, and where you go from there. To learn more about creating a research plan, see the article Think Like a Detective – Developing a Genealogy Research Plan by Association of Professional Genealogists president Kimberly Powell.

One question I get asked in regards to my genealogy research is: “How did you find that?” There’s no magical answer except that I use some basic tried and true research techniques, such as searching on different variations of an ancestor’s name (see Name Research Tip: Search Variations of Family First & Last Names). In addition to standard genealogy record sets, I also use resources like digitized books (see Top Genealogy Websites, Pt. 2: Google Books & Internet Archive).

One of my favorite genealogy tools is to create a timeline for the ancestor’s life I’m researching, and then populate that timeline with dates, events, comments and sources. By creating that timeline, I can keep track of my research and see what gaps need to be filled. It also helps me to focus on what family history resources I may be missing (see Genealogy Timelines: Helpful Research Tools).

Enter Last Name

3) Try Something New

What resources do you use for your research? Instead of doing the same old thing, try using your favorite websites in a different way. For example, GenealogyBank is a great resource for newspapers – but did you know the site offers historical books and documents as well?

Now’s the time to go beyond just searching the same old way and instead try searching differently or utilizing a new collection. You can get some new ideas by checking out the GenealogyBank Learning Center.

Once you’ve explored a new way to use your favorite websites, start searching for genealogy websites you’ve never used before. Need some ideas? You can find website links specific to a topic or a place by checking out Cyndi’s List or Linkpendium. Explore online catalogs by searching on WorldCat or ArchiveGrid, or the catalog for the state archive or library you are researching.

4) Get Help from Professionals, Family & More

Ask a research professional (professional genealogist, reference librarian or archivist) for some assistance searching an online catalog or looking for new resources. There are so many opportunities to ask questions and get assistance with your genealogy searches; one of my favorite ways is to use the “Ask a Librarian” feature found on many library websites. This allows me to email or use a chat room to ask a question about a resource or collection.

In addition, GenealogyBank offers a toll-free phone number for free help from a Family History Consultant. Call 1-866-641-3297 (Hours: Monday – Friday, 10 a.m. – 7 p.m. ET) for help. Also, try looking for more strategies to break through genealogy brick walls in GenealogyBank’s Genealogist Q&A and brick wall blog articles.

Even problem-solving with a non-genealogist friend or relative can be useful. The non-genealogists around us will approach the problem from a different angle since they do not have preconceived notions of where to find information. Talk about your family history research problem with the non-genealogists around you and you may get a few new ideas.

How are you going to get over your genealogy brick wall? We all come to a point where we feel “stuck.” The key is to take a break, regroup, and plan out your future genealogy research. Genealogy is a pursuit that involves continuing education, so take some time to learn something new every day – it will benefit your research and perhaps even your stress level!

How have you overcome your genealogy brick walls? Share your brick wall experiences with us in the comments section.

Related “Brick Wall” Articles:

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Oh Mother Where Art Thou? How to Find Females in Newspapers

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this blog article, Gena provides search tips to find your often-elusive female ancestors in old newspapers.

How do you find stories about your mother, grandmother, great-grandmother and other female ancestors in the newspaper? Sometimes that can be easier said than done, but here are a few tips to help you search for those elusive female ancestors.

What Types of News Articles Feature Women?

While the digitization of newspapers provides us the luxury of finding newspaper articles we weren’t specifically looking for, knowing what type of articles feature women can make it easier to focus your searches. It’s hard to imagine all the different types of articles a mother could be mentioned in, but reading copies of your ancestor’s local newspaper can be helpful. A few types of news articles to consider include the following.

Food & Recipe Newspaper Articles

What’s the best thing your mom cooks? Do you have memories of grandma’s homemade pies at Thanksgiving? Don’t forget that she could have been featured in the pages of the food section of the newspaper for her culinary prowess. Recipe contests sponsored by the newspaper or food companies, requests for recipes, or sharing a favorite recipe were all occasions for women to be published in the local newspaper.

For example, this article from a 1951 Texas newspaper about a pear recipe contest includes the names and addresses of the female judges and the winners. Even three-year-old Peggy Womack, who accompanied her mother to judge the entries, is mentioned.

article about a recipe contest, Dallas Morning News newspaper article 9 March 1951

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 9 March 1951, page 22

Genealogy Tip: Remember that women may be mentioned using their husband’s name so don’t forget to try searching for her as Mrs. John Smith or Mrs. J. A. Smith.

Women’s Interest Pages

Women’s Interest pages printed all types of articles about women’s activities including causes they supported and clubs they were a member of. You can find mentions of events and articles that report on meetings at members’ homes, complete with an address.

Enter Last Name

Such is the case on this Clubs page from a 1926 Washington newspaper, which includes mentions of the WCTU (Women’s Christian Temperance Union), sororities, fraternal auxiliaries like Order of the Eastern Star, and Soroptimists. Awards women won, their names, addresses and even two photos can be found on this page.

women's club page, Seattle Daily Times newspaper article 22 August 1926

Seattle Daily Times (Seattle, Washington), 22 August 1926, page 60

Our female ancestors enjoyed club activities and membership in varied organizations. Identify membership organizations in the area your ancestor lived that she may have been a member of. Remember that she could have belonged to a group that believed in a cause she was passionate about (WCTU or League of Women Voters), was part of her church (Dorcas Society or Relief Society), or an auxiliary to an organization where her husband was a member (Women’s Relief Corp, Order of the Eastern Star).

There’s no doubt that being a mom and wife could get you in the paper as well. Whether it was for the birth of a baby, celebrating a wedding anniversary, attending a family reunion or even traveling with a child, your ancestress could be mentioned.

Great information about one family can be found in this report in a 1905 Idaho newspaper of the reunion attended in Texas by Mrs. J. F. Shellworth of Boise, Idaho. There are many names and much descendant information presented in this old newspaper article.

article about the Campbell family reunion, Idaho Statesman newspaper article 18 August 1905

Idaho Statesman (Boise, Idaho), 18 August 1905, page 6

I have to admit my favorite part is the last paragraph that states:

Of this large family there is nor has been no stain on their moral characters, nor have any of them been arraigned before a court of justice as far back as the family history records.

article about the Campbell family reunion, Idaho Statesman newspaper article 18 August 1905

Idaho Statesman (Boise, Idaho), 18 August 1905, page 6

Gossip & Social Columns

Don’t forget that gossip, social or “around town” articles provide opportunities for piecing together your female ancestor’s life. These short mentions often tell of the everyday activities she participated in like going shopping, traveling or even becoming ill.

For example, in this section of a 1904 Michigan newspaper entitled “News of Michigan Towns,” women are listed partaking in such activities as attending funerals, moving, attending club meetings, teaching, entertaining and in one instance passing away from a lengthy battle with consumption (TB):

Auburn, May 4.—Miss Lillie Miller, who has been suffering for the last six months with consumption, passed away April 30. Burial took place Monday morning at Midland. Miss Miller was with her parents during most of her sickness and death.

social column, Saginaw News newspaper article 4 May 1904

Saginaw News (Saginaw, Michigan), 4 May 1904, page 3

It’s All in the Name

I have discovered that often when I wasn’t able to find something in a digitized newspaper it was because I wasn’t searching my ancestor’s name the way the newspaper printed it. It’s always when I think the name can’t possibly be printed as Miss Philibert or M. B. Philibert that I’m proven wrong.

Genealogy Tip: Create a list of variations of your ancestor’s name and then add various spellings and misspellings to that list.

Keep a list of those name variations handy, and on that list have two parts. In the first part, write out all the variations of the name she could have used throughout her life. Such a list for one of my paternal great-grandmothers looks like this:

  • Mary Bell Chatham
  • Mary Chatham
  • M.B. Chatham
  • Miss Chatham
  • Mary Bell Philibert
  • Mary Philibert
  • Mrs. Oscar Philibert
  • Mrs. O. J. Philibert

Now if I add all the creative ways Chatham and/or Philibert can be spelled, my list starts to look like this:

  • Mary Bell Chatham
  • Mary Chatham
  • M.B. Chatham
  • Miss Chatham
  • Mary Bell Philibert
  • Mary Philibert
  • Mrs. Oscar Philibert
  • Mrs. O. J. Philibert
  • Philbert
  • Philabert
  • Filabert
  • Philburt
  • Phillabert
Enter Last Name

So you get the idea of how many variations you may amass. Not sure how a name could possibly be misspelled? Ask a first or second grader. They will sound out the name and base their guess on phonetics, something that others may have done when spelling your ancestor’s name.

Before you give up on a genealogy search, always try another variation of your ancestor’s name.

Keep Track of Your Family History Research

As you research, keep a timeline of your female ancestor’s life so that you can determine what types of newspaper articles you might find during various times of her life, such as birth notices when she could be having children, or notices about her death. Along with that keep a research log and track your findings each time you research her in the newspaper. You will find a link to a free research log at the end of this article.

Because GenealogyBank is constantly adding new newspapers, you will need to conduct your search at least every month to find new results.

It’s no secret that I love the information that historical newspapers provide about our female ancestors. Finding mom (or grandma or great-grandma) is made easier when you know how to search. Honor your foremothers this week for Mother’s Day by locating stories about their lives in the newspaper.

Happy Mother’s Day!

Free Research Log Template

Not sure what a Research Log is or how to start one? No problem; with this free download from GenealogyBank you’ll be tracking your research in no time.

photo of a genealogy research log

Clicking on the link (or the graphic) will let you download the Research Log template as a full-size, working Excel spreadsheet that you can use to organize and track your genealogy research. This log is compliments of Duncan Kuehn, who provided the following instructions:

Crafting your genealogy research plan:

  • Title: Give your document a title. This will likely be the name of the person or family line that you are working on.
  • Objective: Craft a very specific research objective. The more specific you can be the more effective your search will be. An example of a poorly crafted object would be: “Continue the Johnson line.” A better objective would be: “Find out when Jacob Johnson was born.” An even better objective would be: “Find out when Jacob Johnson (probable son of James Johnson and Sally Kunz) was born (likely 1882-1885 in Hardin County, Kentucky or Randolph County, South Carolina).” Having a clear objective keeps your search focused. Having more information helps you narrow your search and determine if you have found the right information.
  • Date: Always enter a date for each entry. This will help you keep organized.
  • Goal:Follow this basic outline for setting goals. Each goal or search should occupy its own row in the research plan.
    • Confirm the known information.
    • Identify which sources might contain more information. Prioritize these by likelihood to contain the information, reliability, ease of accessibility, quality, etc.
    • Determine what possible documents might exist. For example, were birth certificates issued in the area at that time?
    • Try to find the document.
      • Check to see if any online resources have digitized the collection.
        • If not, check to see if an online index exists.
    • Check to see if any near-to-you repositories have the collection.
    • Check to see if any archives in the local jurisdiction have the collection.
  • Obtain the document and analyze the information.
  • Re-evaluate if the objective was met or not. If it was, then create a new research plan with a new objective. If not, determine what additional information is required and then identify which sources might contain that additional information.
  • Source: Write down what source you are using to find the information. For example, when confirming the information where did you look? Was it on your family tree? Did you locate the birth certificate in your possession? Write down this source and include as much information as possible. Who authored it? What page in the book was it found on? What was the call number of the book? What was the URL of the online document?
  • Repository: Write down where you found the source. Where was the document found? Was it in your possession? Did you locate it on FamilySearch? Was it in the local library? Write down as much information as you can here. If it is a place you intend to visit, be sure to include the address, phone number, website, etc.
  • Result: Write down what you searched for and what you found. Be very, very specific. For example: “I searched for Jacob Aman’s (born 1901 in South Dakota) birth certificate on Ancestry, but nothing was found.  I also used the spellings of Amman, Amann, Ammann, Anan, Amam, Amon, etc. I searched the time span of 1898-1903. I did not restrict it to a particular county.” That way when you think of or discover additional alternative spellings, such as Jakob or the initials J.B., you know to go back and try searching with the new information. When you do find information, record it here.
  •  #: Use this column to record the document number, include a link to the document that is stored on your computer, or list the document name as saved on your computer or in your paper files. You will want to access the document again. How will you find it? Enter that information in this column. Note: be sure to obtain a copy for yourself; don’t rely on finding the document again online, because URLs change, collections get culled and removed from websites, websites go defunct, etc.

Note: What is the difference between a genealogy research log and a research plan? A genealogy research plan includes the log, keeping all the information together. This prepares you for conducting the research: what documents exist, where can they be found? A research log would generally not include the goals of confirming the information, identifying the sources, locating where the source can be found, but instead would focus on the actual document search within a repository. This hybrid combines the best of both worlds to keep all the information in one place. I’ve called it a research plan because genealogists tend to focus on the document search when they need to focus on the preparatory work. The title is intended to remind them to slow down, focus their research, start at the beginning and work their way through. Once the document containing the information is found, the work is not done. Each fact needs to be confirmed by multiple sources. The evidence from each source needs to be properly evaluated. Finally, a written statement needs to be crafted to “prove” the answer, taking into account any evidence that contradicts the genealogist’s conclusion. Once this statement, paragraph, or report has been written, you are ready to move on – keeping in mind that new sources and evidence will be found and that might cause you to go back and revise your previous conclusions.

———————-

Related Articles:

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4 Tips for Genealogy Research with Historical Newspapers

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this blog article, Gena provides four tips, based on her own genealogy experience, to help you research your ancestors in historical newspapers – including a free Research Log template to help you organize and keep track of your searches.

Ok, so you have a weekend free. You decide to spend it on the hobby you love: family history research. You know you need to research in newspapers. But how do you start? Well before you sit down at the computer and start plugging in ancestor name after ancestor name, take a few minutes to plan out that research to make the most of the limited time you have. These four newspaper search tips will help you – and be sure to download the free Research Log template at the end of the article to help you with your genealogy research.

picture of a stack of newspapers with text reading: 4 tips for genealogy research with historical newspapers

1) Whom to start with?

Sometimes just the hunt itself is the addicting part of genealogy research. Looking at old newspapers and reading old newspaper articles can quickly take up your available time. So before you get too engrossed in reading historical newspapers, focus your research and plan for each individual or family you’re interested in.

First, look at your pedigree chart and decide what your research question is. Do you want to find marriage notices for your most immediate family (parents and grandparents)? Do you want to learn more about that black sheep ancestor? Looking to follow your ancestor’s political career? Write down your research question before you start your research. It’s ok if that question changes as you find new information, but start with a specific question so that your research time has a focus.

2) Get the most out of your ancestor search.

Not all genealogy search engines are equal. And to start searching without taking into consideration how that search engine works can result in a lot of frustration and fewer relevant results.

How is the GenealogyBank search engine different?

screenshot of GenealogyBank's search box for its historical newspapers collection

For one thing, the information it finds is via Optical Character Recognition (OCR) and not by searching indexed or transcribed fields. (See the blog article Genealogy Search Engine Types & Tips: OCR vs. Indexed Databases.) Because the software does not recognize words but characters, keep in mind that difficulties can arise when the original newspapers are damaged, smudged, or have hard-to-read type.

Whenever you use a search engine, a good rule to remember is that the more information you add, the fewer results you will receive. In essence, as you fill the search engine with names, keywords, places and dates, you are asking for a very specific and narrow result. In some cases, this is important if you are looking for a specific event or place, or when you are researching a common name. But whenever your search results are few, always think about restructuring your search to make it broader. Try different variations of your search, such as using just a name and place, or simply a name and date.

Enter Last Name

One more tip for your search of GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives: don’t forget to utilize the menu choices located on the left hand side of your search results. These options provide you the choice to narrow your search result by the type of article. This is a wonderful tool to help you find what you need, especially useful when you know what kind of article you are looking for.

screenshot of GenealogyBank's seach page for its historical newspapers collection showing the article categories available

3) Get ready, set, search!

So now that you better understand how to search GenealogyBank it’s time to do the fun part: search! While you could just plug in ancestor names and download articles, consider what each historical newspaper article tells you and how you might change your search to accommodate new information you learned. Then consider follow-up searches on additional names, places or even a historical event so that you can place your ancestor in proper context.

As I research my ancestors, I often take some time to read the whole newspaper, reading every section, to get a sense for the community, what was going on, who was coming and going, etc. – you never know what part of the newspaper might hold information about your ancestral family. I even like to browse the classified advertisements to see how they are structured. For example, do funeral notices appear there? Do they have Help Wanted or Lost and Found ads that contain identifying information like addresses and names?

classified ads, Salem Gazette newspaper advertisements 19 November 1833

Salem Gazette (Salem, Massachusetts), 19 November 1833, page 4

4) Document all your family findings.

Ok, so you found some great information about your family, now what? Don’t just save the articles on your computer to languish there until your next research session or – worse yet – to never be found again. Document your family history finds. Research Logs can help you do that by providing a place to insert what you found, note where you found it, and add any comments that you have for further research.

Free Research Log Template

Not sure what a Research Log is or how to start one? No problem; with this free download from GenealogyBank you’ll be tracking your research in no time.

screenshot of a genealogy research log

Clicking on the link (or the graphic) will let you download the Research Log template as a full-size, working Excel spreadsheet that you can use to organize and track your genealogy research. This log is compliments of Duncan Kuehn, who provided the following instructions:

Crafting your research plan:

  • Title: Give your document a title. This will likely be the name of the person or family line that you are working on.
  • Objective: Craft a very specific objective. The more specific you can be the more effective your search will be. An example of a poorly crafted object would be: “Continue the Johnson line.” A better objective would be: “Find out when Jacob Johnson was born.” An even better objective would be: “Find out when Jacob Johnson (probable son of James Johnson and Sally Kunz) was born (likely 1882-1885 in Hardin County, Kentucky or Randolph County, South Carolina).” Having a clear objective keeps your search focused. Having more information helps you narrow your search and determine if you have found the right information.
  • Date: Always enter a date for each entry. This will help you keep organized.
  • Goal:Follow this basic outline for setting goals. Each goal or search should occupy its own row in the research plan.
    • Confirm the known information.
    • Identify which sources might contain more information. Prioritize these by likelihood to contain the information, reliability, ease of accessibility, quality, etc.
    • Determine what possible documents might exist. For example, were birth certificates issued in the area at that time?
    • Try to find the document.
      • Check to see if any online resources have digitized the collection.
        • If not, check to see if an online index exists.
    • Check to see if any near-to-you repositories have the collection.
    • Check to see if any archives in the local jurisdiction have the collection.
  • Obtain the document and analyze the information.
  • Re-evaluate if the objective was met or not. If it was, then create a new research plan with a new objective. If not, determine what additional information is required and then identify which sources might contain that additional information.
  • Source: Write down what source you are using to find the information. For example, when confirming the information where did you look? Was it on your family tree? Did you locate the birth certificate in your possession? Write down this source and include as much information as possible. Who authored it? What page in the book was it found on? What was the call number of the book? What was the URL of the online document?
  • Repository: Write down where you found the source. Where was the document found? Was it in your possession? Did you locate it on FamilySearch? Was it in the local library? Write down as much information as you can here. If it is a place you intend to visit, be sure to include the address, phone number, website, etc.
  • Result: Write down what you searched for and what you found. Be very, very specific. For example: “I searched for Jacob Aman’s (born 1901 in South Dakota) birth certificate on Ancestry, but nothing was found.  I also used the spellings of Amman, Amann, Ammann, Anan, Amam, Amon, etc. I searched the time span of 1898-1903. I did not restrict it to a particular county.” That way when you think of or discover additional alternative spellings, such as Jakob or the initials J.B., you know to go back and try searching with the new information. When you do find information, record it here.
  •  #: Use this column to record the document number, include a link to the document that is stored on your computer, or list the document name as saved on your computer or in your paper files. You will want to access the document again. How will you find it? Enter that information in this column. Note: be sure to obtain a copy for yourself; don’t rely on finding the document again online, because URLs change, collections get culled and removed from websites, websites go defunct, etc.

Note: What is the difference between a research log and a research plan? A research plan includes the log, keeping all the information together. This prepares you for conducting the research: what documents exist, where can they be found? A research log would generally not include the goals of confirming the information, identifying the sources, locating where the source can be found, but instead would focus on the actual document search within a repository. This hybrid combines the best of both worlds to keep all the information in one place. I’ve called it a research plan because genealogists tend to focus on the document search when they need to focus on the preparatory work. The title is intended to remind them to slow down, focus their research, start at the beginning and work their way through. Once the document containing the information is found, the work is not done. Each fact needs to be confirmed by multiple sources. The evidence from each source needs to be properly evaluated. Finally, a written statement needs to be crafted to “prove” the answer, taking into account any evidence that contradicts the genealogist’s conclusion. Once this statement, paragraph, or report has been written, you are ready to move on – keeping in mind that new sources and evidence will be found and that might cause you to go back and revise your previous conclusions.

———————-

Spend some time this upcoming weekend researching your family in the newspapers. Nowhere else can you find such a rich variety of stories to help you better understand your ancestors’ lives and their world.

Related Newspaper Search Tips Articles:

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7 Tips on How to Find Elusive Ancestors in Newspapers

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this blog article, Mary provides seven practical tips for searching hard-to-find ancestors in old newspapers.

While reading my mother’s Book of Ancestors recently I noticed she had little to say about one of our ancestors, because that person had kept himself out of the public records.

Forebears who didn’t hold public office, own property, or were married in churches or synagogues with lost or private records, are difficult to document. These elusive ancestors can also be difficult to find in historical newspapers, but sometimes they can be found in creative ways. This article gives seven search tips to help find those tricky ancestors in old newspapers.

illustration of Sherlock Holmes with a magnifying glass

1) Pay Attention to “Please Copy” Notices

When something noteworthy occurs such as a birth or death, news is first printed locally.

If that person has ties to other areas, then other newspapers may carry the story. Newspapers may do this either on their own accord, or at the request of the original publisher. What you want to watch out for is a “please copy” notice, which can be a valuable clue that your ancestor had ties to another part of the country where you might find additional articles or records about him or her.

In the newspaper article below from New Orleans, Louisiana, we see many examples of “please copy” notices.

  • Jesse Sands, formerly of Pittsburg, and his wife Jessie M. Olmsted, passed away within two days of each other. The end of their death notice says: “Newburg, N.Y. and Pittsburg, Pa. papers please copy.” So for these two ancestors, you want to include New Orleans, Newburg and Pittsburgh in your searches.
  • J. West Murphy died in Louisiana, but was described as “late of Philadelphia.” The end of his death notice says: “Philadelphia papers please copy.”
  • The end of Virginia B. Harrison’s death notice says: “Philadelphia and Cincinnati papers please copy.”
  • The end of John Gunderman’s death notice says: “St. Louis papers please copy.”

Because these death notices were originally published in a New Orleans newspaper, you want to search that area for more news about your ancestor. But thanks to these “please copy” notices, you are given additional locations for further searching.

death notices, Times-Picayune newspaper article 23 August 1853

Times-Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana), 23 August 1853, page 2

2) Know Your Resource: Understanding the Differences between Small Town & Metropolitan Newspapers

Depending upon the population of a town or city, news will vary. Reasons include:

  • Unless a person was well known, there may be inadequate space to present long articles in newspapers from areas of high population.
  • In smaller towns this is not the same issue, so there is a tendency toward longer descriptions of events such as weddings and arrests.
  • In smaller towns, you may also see more “gossipy” news.
  • If a lengthy feature was carried in a hometown paper, another may feel it only deserves minimal coverage, or the opposite may be true. Minimal coverage in one newspaper may result in extended details in another.
  • Some publishers may wish to sensationalize or downplay news. Once while researching a hometown newspaper, I found that a neighboring town paper was happy to publish the lurid details of a person’s arrest. It was not published in his hometown newspaper, perhaps to protect the family.
Enter Last Name

3) Name Variations

People are usually known by a variety of monikers, both formal and informal. Keep in mind that this is the rule, rather than the exception, so don’t ever limit searches to just one version of a name. Include titles, nicknames, initials, middle names without first names, and other variations. For example:

  • John Jacob Jingleheimer Smith
  • J. J. Smith or J. J. J. Smith
  • Jacob or Jingleheimer Smith
  • Mr. Smith or simply Smith
  • Thomas Edison or Mr. Edison
  • The Wizard of Menlo Park
  • Mary Stillwell
  • Dot Stillwell (her childhood nickname)
  • Thomas Edison’s first wife
  • Mrs. Edison
  • Mina Edison or Mina Miller
  • Thomas Edison’s second wife

4) Spelling Variations and Name Changes – Consider Using a Wildcard

One of the most vexing issues occurs with spelling variations, which occur all too often.

An example can be noted with my husband’s birth surname of Szczesniak. Since others were prone to misspelling it, the family had it legally shortened to Sesniak. Unfortunately, that didn’t work as typos are frequent. One of the most common is to change the ending to “ck,” rather than “ak.”

Name changes can be informal. A woman I know was named Jane. It’s a fine name, but prone to various putdowns, including “plain Jane.” Rather than be labeled with this throughout her life, she elected to change the spelling to Jayne.

We see similar variations in the given name of Mary. I use the traditional spelling, but there are many variations including:

  • Mamie, Maria, Mariah, Marie, May, Meg, Merry, Merrie, Moll, Mollie, Molly, Pollie, Polly, etc.

If you wish to search newspapers and databases for similar spellings, sometimes a wildcard will work.

There are two types: an asterisk “*” which searches for any number of characters in a name; or a question mark “?” which replaces just one letter. For example:

  • Merr* would query the database for any name beginning with Merr, such as Merry or Merrie, followed by any combination of letters. If a woman were named Merriweather, it would also find it.
  • Sebasti?n would return both Sebastian or Sebastien.

Also see prior articles on ancestor name research tips for tips on searching for first names, surnames, name spelling variations and more.

5) Overcoming Language Barriers in Foreign-Language Newspapers

Many online collections of newspapers, such as GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives, contain foreign-language newspapers. GenealogyBank, for example, has some newspapers in French, German, Italian and Spanish.

What do you do if you find your ancestor’s name in a foreign-language newspaper, but are not sure what the article is saying about him or her?

There are a number of free online translators available, where you can type in the text from the foreign-language newspaper and receive an English translation.

For example, what if you found this article about your ancestor Georg Clifforeye?

Heiratete seine Grossmutter.

CALAIS, Me., 28 Oktober. Der 18 Jahre alte Georg Clifforeye heiratete seine Grossmutter Rebecca Louise Garnett von St. Stephen N.B., Canada, und begab sich dann mit ihr nach seiner Wohnung, aber kaum war er dort angelangt, erschien Rev. Gaucher, der has liebende Paar getraut hatte und verlangte den Trauschein, wobei er ihm die $10 Traugebühren retournierte und die Heirat für illegal erklärte, wegen der…

By plugging this text into Google Translate or Bing Translator, we uncover a startling story about the young man attempting to marry his grandmother!

wedding announcement, New Yorker Volkszeitung newspaper article 29 October 1922

New Yorker Volkszeitung (New York, New York), 29 October 1922, page 2

6) Social Notices Provide Many Clues

Many newspapers carried social notices, such as the below example from the Dallas Morning News, reporting the comings and goings of many friends and relatives.

Enter Last Name

These social columns in newspapers provide wonderful research clues to track your ancestor’s activities as well as personal relationships.

social column, Dallas Morning News newspaper article 18 June 1904

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 18 June 1904, page 10

7) Broaden Your Searches

Lastly, if you are in the habit of narrowing ancestor searches with specific dates, get in the habit of broadening the ranges.

Marriage details can extend for months, if not years. Look for engagement notices, bridal showers, banns notices, wedding descriptions, honeymoon reports and even “the happy couple has returned” articles.

Death reporting can also extend over long time periods. Right after passing, you’ll find death notices and obituaries, but some may be published long afterward. I’ve seen an obituary as long as one year after someone died. Also watch for legal notices pertaining to probate, which can occur many years after your ancestor died.

Don’t forget to think outside the box. Some reports are made in error. Even with their mistakes, they can contain valuable personal information. One of my favorite examples was addressed in my article The Lessons of Daniel Boone’s Obituary: Check and Double Check.

I hope these seven search tips will help you break through some brick walls and find those elusive ancestors who didn’t leave many records behind – but may well be found in the pages of old newspapers. Good luck with your family history research!

Related Articles:

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The 5 Biggest Mistakes I Made with My Genealogy

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this blog post, Gena talks about the five worst mistakes she made when she first began researching her family tree—and offers advice to help other genealogists avoid those same errors.

How long have you been researching your family history? Do you look back at your genealogy research and wish you had done things differently? We all do. Just like parenting, genealogy research is a “learn as you go” proposition. Even when we receive unsolicited advice from more experienced family historians we may ignore that advice, not understanding the wisdom that comes from having researched over time.

illustration of a light bulb

Mistakes? Yeah, I’ve made a few. Here are five that I’ve made researching my family tree—and how you can avoid them.

1) Sources? What’s a Source?

Most genealogists will name “not citing their sources” as a family history research beginner’s regret. Sure, maybe it doesn’t seem like a big deal now—after all, you aren’t publishing anything right? But a year from now when you want to look at a particular record again and you can’t remember where you saw it, believe me you’re going to wish you wrote down the source of that piece of genealogical information.

So how do you remedy that? Well if you want to do a thorough job, you can refer to the Elizabeth Shown Mills classic Evidence Explained. If you are using a genealogy software program, chances are that program includes citation templates that you can use to fill in the blanks. And for those who prefer to copy and paste, do so with the source citations many genealogy websites provide with each document view. Your end goal should be to have enough information about what the document is, and where to locate it, that you or others can find it when they need to.

2) I Don’t Need to Write That Down (Not Recording What You Find)

Really this genealogy research mistake is connected with the first. I remember when I started working on my personal family history research, most genealogists were buried under paper copies. We have come a long way since the days where you worried about how much room photocopies would take up in your suitcase after a trip to the Family History Library in Salt Lake City. And with the ability to subscribe to websites and print from home, that pile of papers just got bigger and bigger. Yes, it’s fun to find stuff and to have that physically on paper, but it’s equally important to record what you find. Whether you do that in a genealogy software program, spreadsheet or database you create, recording what you find will help you avoid repeating searches that you have already exhausted or, worse yet, “finding” information that you had already discovered six months ago.

Another benefit of recording the information—or even transcribing or abstracting that information—is that you get to know the document better. I find I learn so much more about a resource when I’m actively engaging with it by abstracting the information found in that document.

Sure, print or digitally save that census record, newspaper article, or vital record. But after you do that, then record the information so that you have it and can refer back to it when needed.

Enter Last Name










3) Not Learning How to Search

Sometimes we think that searching our ancestors is easy. Anyone can do it, right? You just enter a name, date, and place and you find what you need. Well yes, almost anyone can do it but crafting a good search and finding those elusive ancestors involves more than filling in the boxes on a search engine.

So how do you conduct a really good ancestry search? For GenealogyBank, which uses OCR (Optical Character Recognition) to search its content, you get better results by using keywords or a keyword phrase. Don’t limit your ancestor searches to just a name.

First, develop lists of keywords to use in your search. One list of keywords should be name variations for your ancestor including nicknames, initials, and misspellings. For example, if my ancestor is John Jacob Smith, I would want to search for him as John Smith, John J. Smith, J.J. Smith, and Mr. Smith.

Because this ancestor search is for a common surname, simply doing a name search is not enough; I would also want to use GenealogyBank’s advanced search engine to add other keywords to narrow my search to my target ancestor. Create a second list of keywords that includes the places your ancestor was from, their occupation, the name of their spouse, and other details like religion or membership organization.

Also, remember this advice: keep searching over time! Conducting a single search on a website that is constantly adding content, like GenealogyBank, isn’t enough. The newspaper article you need may not have been available back when you did your original search months ago, but perhaps it was added yesterday. Make sure you utilize the “Added Since” button found on the Advanced Search engine to search the latest content, especially if you have conducted a search recently.

(We often discuss genealogy search tips here on the GenealogyBank blog; see the end of this article for a list of relevant examples.)

4) Not Evaluating Evidence

There’s a rush of excitement in finding something new about an ancestor—but in that excitement we don’t always take a moment to really analyze the information we found. What’s involved in analyzing the evidence? A good part of the analyzing involves immersing yourself in reading the document and asking yourself what the document tells you, what it doesn’t tell you, and where you should go next. Don’t take the document at face value; take the time to read slowly and deeply to understand everything that is written down in the article, and use that information to ask additional questions to guide your research further.

Enter Last Name










5) Not Having a “Permanent” Email Address

Part of genealogy is networking: reaching out and connecting with other researchers and potential cousins. Making those connections can help you uncover details previously unknown to you. The problem is that in the rush to change an Internet provider we are unhappy with, we often forget all of the clues and questions we’ve left on various message boards and social media websites using that no-longer-current email address as our only contact information. There’s nothing worse than having the answer to someone’s genealogy problem—only to send them an email and having that email bounce because it’s no longer a valid address.

So before you make all those posts and ask all of those questions on genealogy subscription websites, message boards and social media sites, secure a permanent email address through a website like Gmail or Hotmail. This email address won’t change if you switch Internet providers, thus leaving you with a permanent online address for potential cousins to find you today and six years from now.

What genealogy mistakes have you made in your family history research? Fess up in the comments below and help other genealogy researchers not fall into the same traps.

Related Genealogy Search Articles:

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Old Music in Historical Newspapers: Tips for Finding Songs

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this blog post, Mary provides newspaper search tips to find articles and musical scores about the songs our ancestors enjoyed

When doing your family history research, have you ever wondered about the old music your American ancestors enjoyed?

What were the popular melodies and tunes of earlier days, what were their origins, and what musical discoveries can we find in historical newspapers?

Yankee Doodle

A fun place to start is by researching one of the more ubiquitous tunes in American history: “Yankee Doodle.” Just think—our parents, grandparents and great grandparents knew the same lyrics to this song. What a wonderful shared experience that is.

Yankee Doodle went to town
Riding on a pony;
He stuck a feather in his hat,
And called it macaroni.

To find a wide assortment of news articles about “Yankee Doodle” and amusing renditions of this popular American song, enter the title into GenealogyBank’s search engine. This search returns over 64,000 “best matches,” so you may wish to sort the results by date from the earliest to newest, or vice versa.

One of the earliest newspaper articles, from 1769, reports that the British military used the song as a type of verbal bantering or taunting of the colonists.

According to the article:

…the Officer of the Guard, in a sneering Manner, called upon the Musicians to play up the Yankee Doodle Tune, which completed the Conquest of the Military, and afforded them a temporary Triumph.

New-York Journal (New York, New York), 14 September 1769, page 2

New-York Journal (New York, New York), 14 September 1769, page 2

Limiting Music Searches by Categories

With so many search results, I looked for ways to narrow the focus. A promising option was the “Poems & Songs” category with over 1,200 historical newspaper articles to explore.

search results for "Yankee Doodle" in GenealogyBank

Adding Keywords to Your Article Search

To learn about specifics, I incorporated keywords such as “origins.”

Enter Last Name










A newspaper article from 1861 reported that “Yankee Doodle’s” music was derived from the “Lucy Locket” nursery rhyme. I wasn’t familiar with it—but if you hum “Lucy Locket,” you’ll find it has the same musical syntax, or structure, as “Yankee Doodle.”

Lucy Locket lost her pocket
Kitty Fisher found it;
Not a bit of money in it
Only binding ’round it.

 
After the 1775 Battles of Lexington and Concord, the patriots came up with their own lyrics. An early version was titled “The Yankee’s Return from Camp,” used as a battle march.

The old song has direct references to George Washington (then a Captain) and Capt. Isaac Davis. See article on Capt. Isaac Davis at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Isaac_Davis_(soldier).

Photos & Illustrations

You’ll discover a number of musical scores in the “Poems & Songs” category on GenealogyBank’s search results page, and there are others in the “Photos & Illustrations” category. By examining these, I found a promising lead from 1910 that was reprinted three years later, in 1913.

Historical Music Sheet Tab in Historical Newspapers Genealogy Bank

This sheet tab reference isn’t actually from the “Yankee Doodle” song itself, but instead a composition called “The Boys That Fight the Flames” by George M. Cohen. He composed it as part of his play, Fifty Miles from Boston.

Forgotten Old Songs

The “Photos & Illustrations” category is also a wonderful place to find musical scores of forgotten pieces. Although not familiar with “Life’s a Bumper,” I might try playing this song on my piano.

Bellows Falls Gazette (Bellows Falls, Vermont), 14 December 1839, page 1

Bellows Falls Gazette (Bellows Falls, Vermont), 14 December 1839, page 1

Search Tips for Finding Old Music

This blog post is just the tip of the iceberg on musical discoveries found in newspapers. Try these steps and be sure to share your own tips for researching the music of our ancestors in old newspapers.

  • Do a general search for a song title
  • Sort by Best Matches, Oldest Items or Newest Items
  • Narrow by the category “Poems & Songs”
  • Experiment with other categories, such as “Photos & Illustrations”
  • Repeat the previous steps by adding keywords, such as “origins” or a composer’s name

Related Music Articles:

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4 GenealogyBank Search Tips from 2014 SCGS Jamboree Conference

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this guest blog post, Gena—who gave two genealogy presentations on behalf of GenealogyBank at the recent Southern California Genealogical Society Jamboree—describes some of the search tips she discussed at the Jamboree.

We are back from the recent Southern California Genealogical Society Jamboree. It’s always great to meet with GenealogyBank members and hear about their newspaper discoveries. If you weren’t able to attend 2014 SCGS genealogy Jamboree, that’s ok—many of the presentations are available online. For example, I made two presentations on behalf of GenealogyBank, “Using America’s Ethnic Newspapers to Find and Document Your Family” and “GenealogyBank Inside and Out,” and these were recorded and are now available from Conference Resource.

photo of Gena Philibert-Ortega and Duncan Kuehn staffing the GenealogyBank booth at the Jamboree genealogy conference

Photo: Gena Philibert-Ortega and Duncan Kuehn staffing the GenealogyBank booth at the Jamboree conference. Credit: from the author’s collection.

One of the benefits of a genealogy conference is the opportunity to learn new tips to search and make family history discoveries. I thought it would be helpful to share some of the genealogy tips we provided at Jamboree for you to try at home.

Also, remember that you don’t have to attend a conference to have us help you with your GenealogyBank searches. The GenealogyBank Blog constantly provides genealogy tips, and you can always give us a call (1-866-641-3297) and we will work with you to help you trace your family tree.

1) Locations: Location, Location, Location—or Not

Family history researchers are accustomed to searching through a genealogy database by entering an ancestor’s name, date, and location. In a previous blog article, Genealogy Search Engine Types & Tips: OCR vs. Indexed Databases, I discussed how searching indexed content is different than content that is being searched using Optical Character Recognition (OCR), like newspapers. While narrowing down a location is essential in researching other types of information, such as a census return, in newspaper research a specific location may be less important because a newspaper article can appear in multiple newspapers and locations—sometimes on the other side of the country from where your ancestor lived.

As you prepare your search on GenealogyBank, take some time to plan out different types of searches.

Enter Last Name










For example, if I’m searching for John C. McNeil who lived from 1823 to 1909 and spent time in Arizona, I would want to conduct searches that would include his name, date range, and place. But then I may want to a search with just his name (with or without the middle initial) and a date range. Because he lived in several different states, I don’t want to always limit the place because I will miss mentions of him in other localities. Even if your ancestor didn’t move around a lot, they can still be mentioned in other newspapers outside of their immediate area. In the case of ethnic newspapers, the newspaper can be aimed at a group from a larger geographic region. Remember that some newspapers may serve a county area, and not just a city. And in the case of a tragedy or even a human interest story, the article can be picked up and printed in newspapers across the United States.

So the bottom line is: don’t include the name of the place or the newspaper location in every search you conduct.

2) Keywords: What Words Do You Include in Your Search?

One of the great features of the GenealogyBank search engine is that you can include or exclude words. So let’s say the surname you are researching is also a noun or a verb, like Miller or Walk. Use the exclude keywords box to exclude certain words. If I’m researching on the surname Baker, I may exclude the word “bread” or “bakery” because I do not want results about bakers, I want results about people with that surname.

screenshot of GenealogyBank's search page

Have multiple words you want to exclude or include? Just place a comma in between each word. But don’t try to include or exclude too many keywords or you may unnecessarily narrow your results.

3) Hacking Genealogy Searches: Type outside the Search Box

The GenealogyBank search engine has a place for a last and first name, but that doesn’t mean you have to enter those names in those boxes. The search engine is looking for whatever characters you have typed—it doesn’t know what words are names and what words are other keywords, so you could enter all of those characters (keywords) in the “Include Keywords” box.

However, it might help you organize your searches if you enter your ancestor’s last and first names in those boxes, then keep changing terms in the “Include Keywords” and “Exclude Keywords” boxes as you continue trying to find as many articles as you can about your target ancestor.

The search engine also allows you to use wildcards (such as the characters ? or * ) to substitute for letters. Say your ancestor’s first name is Alexander. You could try a search on Alex?. This way you would find results that list him as Alexander or Alex.

One additional genealogy search tip: conduct an “exact phrase” search. Try searching on “John C McNeil” (quotation marks around the words indicate it’s an exact phrase) instead of just John C McNeil (and remember this entire phrase can be typed into one search box). By putting the phrase in quotation marks, you are telling the search engine to search for that exact phrase, and not articles that contain a John, a C, and a McNeil somewhere in the text.

But remember; don’t limit your search to only exact phrase searches, or you will miss results where the name is slightly different than what you have entered.

Enter Last Name










4) Major Life Events & Gatherings

One of the biggest “aha!” moments I had during the Jamboree was talking to the staff at the GenealogyBank booth and learning this search tip: try searching on an event your ancestor was involved in without adding their name. When an event is reported in the newspaper (think car crash, natural disaster, or other tragedy), names associated with that event (such as survivors, victims, witnesses, and rescue personnel) are not always mentioned in the initial reports. The event will most likely be reported in articles over a period of time, and as those articles unfold, names may be added.

Say for example you know that your ancestor was involved in a ship accident. Don’t search on their name initially; instead search on the name of the ship or the date the disaster happened. Gather all the newspaper articles you can find about that event to learn more about this incident that affected your ancestor’s life—but don’t limit your initial searches to your ancestor’s name because you will miss important information, especially in some of the first reports about the event. You can later do a search using your ancestor’s name to see if there was a report specifically focusing on your ancestor.

Those are some of the genealogy search tips I explained during my Jamboree presentations, as well as some lessons I learned by attending the Jamboree, listening to other presentations, talking to the audience, and discussing genealogy with the staff at the GenealogyBank booth. I hope they help you with your own family history research.

See You at the Jamboree Next Year!

Going to a genealogy conference? Good chance GenealogyBank will be there. Make sure to stop by the GenealogyBank booth and let us help you search for your ancestors. Not able to visit us at a particular conference? No problem—give us a call (1-866-641-3297) and GenealogyBank’s helpful support staff will assist you with your family search questions. You can also find genealogy search tips on our site’s Genealogist Q&A section.

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10 Tips to Find Your Living Family Members

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 10 tips to help find your living relatives and record family history information from them—complementing the genealogy work you’re doing on your long-ago ancestors.

There are many different reasons to search for your living relatives. Some of these include organizing a family reunion, finding out-of-contact relatives, or locating family heirlooms, keepsakes, and photos. Doing this sort of research may seem challenging, but the 10 steps explained below will help you in your quest to find living family members.

photo of the painting “The Sense of Sight” by Philip Mercier, 1744-1747

Painting: “The Sense of Sight” by Philip Mercier, 1744-1747. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

1) Start with what you know and determine what you want to know

Genealogists like to collect the low-hanging fruit first. Start with yourself. Record what you know about your family history and what clues you might have. Determine exactly what you want to discover and outline a plan of action. Record all the information you find in one location.

Your next step will probably be to contact those who might have the information you are searching for. This could be family members, long-time family friends, or anyone who would know. Ask specific questions, but also ask leading questions that might jog their memory for any clues that may be helpful to you. If you are looking for an old family Bible you could ask questions such as:

  • Do you have it?
  • Have you ever seen it?
  • Who had it last?
  • If you had to guess, who do you think might have it now?
  • Was anyone interested in family history?
  • Who handled the estate of the person who last had it?

Even if they can only say that one of great grandpa’s daughters had an interest in family history, but they don’t remember the name, it is a clue that you should record.

Enter Last Name










2) Move back to extended family members

If you were able to find and speak with your parents and all your siblings, move back to your grandparents and find all their children and grandchildren. Again, your immediate family can assist you here. They may know that Cousin Jane lived in Milwaukee and Uncle Joe went to Texas. Reconstruct the family tree the best you can from all their hints. You will probably get some conflicting information; don’t worry about that now. But don’t disregard any conflicting information, even if you know it is wrong. You may find that the story about Aunt Sara never happened to her, but it did happen to Aunt Beth.

3) Gather family documents

While asking for stories and information from and about your extended family, also ask for a copy of any documents or pictures that they may have. Make copies; don’t take their original documents. Be sure to keep track of where each family document came from. You will want to know where the information came from as you move further into your research. You can also start collecting documentation from various family history websites, libraries and archives. Show these documents to other family members to see if they can help jog their memories.

So far the process we have followed has been similar to doing regular family history on long-gone ancestors. The following steps will diverge from that familiar path, as you research your living relatives. You can use all the traditional genealogy sources as you move forward in time, rather than backward. However, there are also some resources you may not have thought of—like yearbooks, voter lists, association memberships, old city directories, and so forth. My four favorite resources are: obituaries, Facebook, Google, and online directories. These will be discussed in more detail below.

4) Chart it out in a Descendancy Chart

Begin charting out the family structures in a descendancy chart. Mark family lines that die out, those you have found, and those that need more work. Unlike going backward where each generation only adds two people, going forward one generation can dramatically increase the number of people you are looking for.

family tree chart

Illustration: descendancy chart. Credit: GenealogyBank.

5) Move forward

Once you move back one generation, follow all the descendants forward in time until today. If your grandparents were having children before 1940, you can search for the family in the U.S. Federal Census to gather the names and ages of the children. If you have access to the birth certificates you can also look through the index to find your grandparents listed as parents. Newspaper databases like GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives have birth announcements as well. Keep in mind that not all birth announcements will mention the new baby’s name, so search for these notices using the father’s name, the date range, and a keyword like “birth” or “San Antonio” (or the city they were living in).

6) Find the obituary

Finding the death information for each generation is also helpful. Look for everyone’s obituary. Sometimes finding your aunt’s obituary can help you find your grandparents. You can use the Social Security Death Index (SSDI) on GenealogyBank’s website to quickly discover the date of death to help you in your search for obituaries. However if the person died within the last three years, the SSDI no longer has that death information available, and you will have to begin by searching directly for the obituary.

Obituaries are priceless documents as you move forward in time tracing your family tree. The obituary will often list the deceased’s children and grandchildren by name. In addition to their name, it will often mention their location. This is crucial information to help you locate their current contact information. Obituaries are some of the most valuable records you can find in your search. Other newspaper articles can be helpful in finding your living family members as well. They can give you information on the person’s location, family members, and other biographical information that can help you confirm that you have the correct person.

Enter Last Name










7) Look on Facebook

It always amazes me what people post on Facebook! There are all sorts of relationships, locations, and birth information on Facebook users’ profiles. Some statistics say that one half of the world’s population uses Facebook. It is a wonderful resource for genealogy research. If an individual’s profile is public, you can also view their list of friends. To find possible relatives, just type in the last name on their “friends” page. This can help you confirm that you have the right person and also help you find the other family members you are searching for.

8) Google Family Members’ Names

Google and other search engines are also important family-finding tools. Try Googling your own name. You may be surprised at what you can find out about yourself online! For example, a quick search for my name brings back my LinkedIn page, professional website, GenealogyBank blogs, my BYUi faculty profile, my RateMyProfessors page, my twitter account, and of course my Facebook page—as well as several images of me. I am a fairly private person, but there is plenty of information about me out there in cyberspace. If you are looking for living people, you will have a lot of information to search through. There are several books that can teach you how to use Google in the most effective way for investigative purposes. One of my favorites is Google Toolbox.

illustration of a magnifying glass

Illustration: magnifying glass. Credit: Equazcion; Wikimedia Commons.

9) Research online directories

When Googling the name of the person you are looking for, you will probably run into several directory pages as well. Some popular directory examples: WhitePages.com, Intelius.com, and PeopleFinder.com. These are great tools to use to locate family members, but they can be a bit tricky to make sure you have the right person. Use three or more items of information to confirm the correct name. For example, when searching for someone on Intelius.com, a list of names associated with that individual and a list of previous residents will appear. If you know from grandpa’s obituary that the person you’re searching for lived in San Antonio and was the son of Jacob—and you find a person with a previous address in San Antonio, an associate named Jacob, who is of the correct age—you may very well have the right person.

In today’s world, it is easier to find someone’s Facebook account, email address, and physical address than it is to find their phone number—although that is still possible.

10) If you get stuck on any one person, move on to the next

You will often find one person by searching for others.  Make sure to keep track of all the information you gather, even if it doesn’t seem relevant at the time.

These are a few tips to get you started in your hunt for living relatives on your family tree. To learn more you can visit the Council for the Advancement of Forensic Genealogy (CAFG) and read their past newsletters for additional tips and tricks to find family members.

Keep in mind that once you locate the relatives you are looking for, you need to be respectful and careful about contacting them. You were searching for them, but they may not know who you are and may be suspicious of what you want. A short friendly message of introduction and an offer to communicate further is helpful. You have done a lot of detective work to find them and may feel a strong familial connection with them, even though you have not yet met.  They may not feel the same. Your message may arrive out of the blue and completely catch them off guard. Keep this in mind as you make an effort to connect with them.

Best of luck in your family search!

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Ancestral Name Searches: 4 Tips for Tracing Surname Spellings

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this guest blog post, Mary explains that ancestral surnames may have been spelled differently in the past—or been completely different altogether—and provides tips for searching for these ancestral name variations.

Earlier this year, I asked some Facebook friends to help with family research on surnames. This type of research can be tricky; some ancestral surnames had spelling variations—or were completely different names.

My friends answered with a range of responses: some reported minor spelling changes in their ancestors’ surnames, while others told of rather dramatic aberrations. After all, who would ever correlate the Bedenbaugh family with the name “Pitebag,” the Cal family with the name “Carroll,” or the Von Der Burg family with the name “Funderburg”!

My Question about Researching Surnames

This was my original Facebook request, with my friends’ replies summarized in the following chart:

I’m looking for ancestral surnames with many alternate spelling variations. For instance, Smith can be spelled Smyth or Smythe. Harrell can be Herrall, Horrall, Herald, etc. Also, looking for names of emigrants that were Americanized. Thanks in advance!

From Surname Variations / Comments
Cindi S. Amick: Emig, Emmick, Emmigh, Amig, Amik
Angela H. Ammons: Amonds, Emmons, Almons, Aman. Ammonds in Germany; Americanized to Ammons.
Jim B. Becherer: My “Becherer” ancestor changed it to Baker, although there are records where he was Becker and his tombstone is Bakar.
Cindi S. Bedenbaugh came from a Pitebag. That’s another one that has always been curious.
Victoria N. Calley, Colley, Collier, Callie, Cally, Colly
Judi C-T. Carroll, Carrell, Corall, Coral, Cal
Marge I. Cilley, Celley, Cealy, Seley, Sealey, Selley, so on, so on
Judy J-L. Cosky: Coskey, Kosky, Koskey, Koski, Koskie, Cuskie, Cusky—came across my ancestral name spelled all these ways on various documents.
Judy J-L. Deegan, Deagan, Dagen, Degan, and Deegen
Cindi S. Dominick, Dominy, Daming, and the oldest variation on this name that I could find: Durnermubhor?
Mary H-S. Ebling, Ebeling, Hebling, Eblinger
Sandy G. Finkenbinder: My grandmother was a Finkenbinder. It started in Germany as Fintboner, Finkboner, Finkbeiner, Finkenbeiner, Finkenbinder.
Cindi S. Fulmer, Folmer, Follmer, Volmer, Vollmer
Mary H-S. Harrell, Harel, Herald, Herrald, Horall, Horrell, Horald
Tammy H. Henney, Heney, Hanney, Hanny, Henny, Heaney, Haney…started as Hennig
Cindi S. Krell, Krelle, Crell, Crelle, Krehl, Kreil, Kreel, Creel, Crehl
Jim B. Langendoerfer: Within the space of two pages, the same census taker for the 1860 Census for Wayne County, PA, listed the four Langendoerfer brothers as: John Longdone, Winesdale (actually Wendell) Langerford, Jacob Longendoff, [and] Nicholas Longendiffer. He probably spoke to each of them on the same day along the same stretch of road. He never realized they were all saying the same name.[Cindi S.] It was a cold day and a little nip helped the census taker make his rounds…lol
Mary H-S. Miesse, Measey, Mease, Mise, Meise, spelled as Mȕsse in Germany
Leanne L. Ouderkerk: Ouderkirk, Oudekerk, Oudekirk, Oderkirk, Odekirk from Holland to New York mid 1600s
Monica C. Peats, Peets, Peetz, Pietz, Peet, Peat, Pyatt, Piatt…
Lisa F. Penny, Penney, Pinny, Pinney
Jessica R. Shultz, Schultz, Shulse, Shultze, Sholtz, Schulse…
Heidi N. Smith can also be an Americanized version of Schmidt, Schmeid, Schmitt, etc.
Mary H-S. Smith, Smyth, Smythe
Tammy H. Sweezey, Sweazy, Sweasey, Swazy, Swazey, Swasey, Sweezy, Swasy. From Germany via France.
Trish W. Von Der Burg family (Funderburg, Funderburgh, Funderburk, etc.)

So Which Surname Spelling Is Correct?

Although some genealogists may disagree, I believe the correct answer is: “most of them!”

Names morph, or change, on documents for a variety of reasons. Obvious reasons include ignorance (simply didn’t know the correct spelling) and sloppiness (typographical and handwriting issues)—but more complex reasons include other considerations.

In general, Old World names (given and last names) are, more often than not, converted from one spelling to another over time. Sometimes this evolves from alphabetical considerations, and other times from pronunciation or Anglicization issues.

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1) Alphabetical Conversions

Alphabetical conversions occur when a letter from a foreign alphabet doesn’t exist in English—such as ones with accents or umlauts (ȕ). An example from the chart is the name Miesse, which was spelled in Germany as Mȕsse. In 17th and 18th century church and civil records, this name is predominantly recorded with an umlaut, but English-speaking settlers had to convert the ȕ to “i,” “ea” and “ie.”

2) Surname Anglicization for Legal Reasons

Families might deliberately change or Anglicize the spellings of their surnames. Sometimes this occurs in daily practice (not formalized), but at other times during a court filing.

An example in the Sesniak family occurred when the name was legally changed from the traditional Polish spelling of Szczesniak. As my husband Tom explains:

On first try, nobody could pronounce or spell our last name, so my father had it shortened. Uniquely, he kept the same pronunciation by dropping two zs and a c. Although it broke all family tradition and upset the grandparents [who did not join in the court filing], it was the right thing to do. They were rooted to their Polish community, but it was only a small part of America. Although they never lost their ethnic pride, my parents’ family immediately went from being Polish to Polish American.

3) Name Pronunciation Dilemmas

Whenever a surname is pronounced differently from what its written form would suggest, expect to find spelling variations—such as this example from my Irish ancestry.

Our family Bible recorded the name as Hoowee—causing some Fisher family cousins to doubt its authenticity. After visiting Ireland, we discovered that the name is spelled both as Hoowe and Hoowee in records.

photo of the name "Hoowee" spelled in the Mathias Fisher family Bible

Photo: the name “Hoowee” spelled in the Mathias Fisher family Bible. Source: in the possession of Mary Harrell-Sesniak.

Why it was changed, we’ll never know—but after discovering it is often pronounced “Who ee” rather than “How,” my theory is that the version “Hoowee” was chosen because it better reflected the correct pronunciation.

4) Recording Considerations

When examining records, always consider who recorded the information.

Was there an enumerator or interviewer—or did a family member write the information in original handwriting?

If a spelling variation came from a family member, perhaps this person was not very literate. If it came from an enumerator, the name might have been written the way the enumerator heard it (phonetically or otherwise). Or perhaps a spelling was altered to reflect a personal cultural background.

Enumerator name variations are commonly reported by census researchers. (See the Langendoerfer example in the chart.)

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The Ellis Island Myth

One of the most written-about American experiences is the arrival of immigrants to Ellis Island—but one of the most incorrectly repeated statements is that names were changed (or Anglicized) upon arrival at Ellis Island.

photo of the Immigrant Building, Ellis Island, New York Harbor, c.1904

Photo: Immigrant Building, Ellis Island, New York Harbor, c.1904. Source: Underwood & Underwood; Library of Congress.

This widely repeated myth is easily dispelled by focusing on the steps undertaken when passengers arrived in the port.

During the interview process, immigrants’ names were verified to see that they matched the names recorded on ship manifests, which had been created in foreign, not American, ports. If there were exceptions, it would arise if an immigrant disagreed with the recorded spelling.

(For an in-depth explanation, see the New York Public Library article at www.nypl.org/blog/2013/07/02/name-changes-ellis-island,)

What Are Your Family Spelling Variations?

If you’ve only uncovered 1-2 spelling variations for your family surname, I hope this article will inspire you to find more—and to consider reasons how and why they changed.

Please share your surname spelling examples with us in the comments section.

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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.

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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!

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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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