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Local Historical and Genealogical Societies: Valuable Resources for Any Researcher

hist soc

 

Have you been stumped with a research project, especially because the area your ancestor lived in was a mystery to you?  Needed a genealogical buddy to bounce ideas off of?  Discover the local historical societies in your ancestor’s area, and find friends and inspiration at a genealogical society in your home county. Let’s look at a few things each could be valuable for.

HISTORICAL SOCIETIES

Unless you have lived in the same area for six generations, you may not know much about the place where your ancestor lived and raised his family.  Knowing about small cemeteries, churches in the area, and the general history can help in your research. Often these historical societies are run or staffed by volunteers, and we appreciate all the time they put into restoring the history of their area.  It is always a great idea to contact historical societies in your ancestor’s area, either by phone or through their websites.  For example here are some unique records I’ve found in historical societies:

  • Private indexes of obituary records
  • Private indexes of newspaper records
  • Books on local churches
  • Cemetery indexes
  • Historic maps
  • Journals and diaries of early local citizens
  • Photographs
  • School records
  • Business records
  • Early court records (from the 1700s) thrown away by the courthouse and retrieved by the historical society staff
  • Family surname indexes
  • Donated family histories and family files
  • Newsletters about the area’s history and records
  • …and so much more!

YOUR LOCAL GENEALOGICAL SOCIETY

Do you have family who just don’t understand your need to learn more about the family tree?  Need a friend who won’t roll their eyes at your story of finding the right headstone at the cemetery?  Join a local county genealogical society.  These are also staffed by volunteers, dedicated to the preservation of family histories.  You don’t have to have ancestors from your local area to  join a local genealogical society – its about coming together and collaborative learning.  Many genealogical societies meet regularly or volunteer in projects like these:

  • Sponsoring lectures in genealogical or historical subjects
  • Collecting and indexing records for publication
  • Discussing research problems
  • Cleaning or maintaining local cemeteries or historic sites
  • Sharing information about genealogical educational opportunities both online and in the area
  • Planning trips to significant historical sites or archives.

Take some time to visit the website for the historical society in your ancestor’s area or find out the meeting times of the genealogical society in your local area.  You’ll be glad you did.  You’d be surprised how much you can learn!

 

 

 

Confessions of a Census Enumerator

Have you ever searched for family in any of the Federal Censuses and been tear-your-hair-out-frustrated?  People’s places of birth, ages, relationships, and naturalization dates fluctuate from one census to another.  You can’t find someone you know is in that city, no matter how you try.  The handwriting is atrocious and the spelling is worse!

In 2010 a friend told me that the US Census Bureau was hiring in our town, and I thought that this might be an opportunity to understand a little more about what went into enumerating the census.  Some of the things I learned even as modern-day census enumerator gave me a deeper appreciation of the struggles a census taker in earlier times may have.  Some lessons were eye-opening. Others were simply scary.

  • It’s the law. In the modern census, you are enumerated by mail.  If you do not fill in your form and return it in time, that is when your friendly neighborhood enumerator comes to call.  Most people just forgot and often had the paperwork somewhere nearby.  Quite a number of homes had to be qualified as unlived in.  Many people were extremely argumentative, and did not believe the census to be really legal.  Rarely do people realize that the law directing enumeration of the populous is a provision in the Constitution, Article 1, Section 2.
  • Try, and try again. As an enumerator, we were required to try a home a minimum of three times, even if we had been rebuffed the first time.  If there were no results, we were to ask the neighbors.
  • Listen to the kids. The law today directs that a resident of the home as young as age 14 could answer questions about the household if no other adult was available.  I would try and go back to the home when an adult was home, but I did have to ask a child more than once about the household.
  • Gender rules. It was interesting to see which enumerators in our group had the most success.  We met together for training and to turn in our results weekly.  The tall, strong-looking men were answered the least by residents.  The women came in with the most results.  Why?  Having a stranger at your door today is no more scary than at any other time.  People are wary of opening the door to strange men.  Strange women (especially very short women with bright smiling faces like mine) are not intimidating.  People wanted to talk to us, give us something to drink, and have us sit and rest.
  • Keep it local. The Census Bureau purposefully has enumerators work within their own neighborhoods.  First, we already know our way around.  Second, the idea is that we are comfortable where we lived.  I rarely enumerated more than four miles from my home.  Even so, I ran into many situations where people spoke languages I did not understand, and they could not understand me.  How likely was that to happen to an immigrant ancestor of yours?
  • I wasn’t scary, but… People who were naturalized citizens were the most anxious to talk to me.  They wanted me to know they were legal citizens and proud of it.  Others would not believe that we weren’t secret agents of the INS, FBI, or CIA.
  • There are some dangers. There were a lot more dogs in my neighborhood than I realized.  Big ones.  It was intimidating to enter a yard that was clearly protected by Kujo’s cousin.
  • Don’t assume anything. It was the rule that we had to ask the householder to pronounce their race, not assume it by observation.  My favorite answer to the question from a determined looking man was “human race.”
  • It’s huge. I had not realized how many people lived in my neighborhood, and was awed by the scale of the census project.
  • I saw some things I’d rather soon forget. Yes, people do answer the door in their underwear.  Enough said.

So, before you curse the name of the 1880 enumerator who came to your ancestor’s door, try to imagine it from the other side.  For more information on the history of census enumeration and its impact on genealogical research today, try “Chapter 13: Census Returns” in Val D. Greenwood’s book, The Researcher’s Guide to American Genealogy.  Another favorite is Kathleen Hinkley’s well-written Your Guide to the American Census.

Remember the old saying, “With information comes inspiration.”

Rebecca’s Reel Hints: Research Plans


We are list-makers. We have to-do lists, grocery lists, and gift lists at holidays. A genealogical research plan is a specialized type of to-do list just for your family history project. To have a successful research plan, I have found it helpful to follow a few basic guidelines:

1. Make a written plan. You would be surprised how often we start our genealogy research without a plan, let alone a written one. Writing focuses our thinking and forces us to ask questions about the viability of certain research paths. When we review our timelines and background information, we have a better sense of what we need to find to accomplish our goals. Personally, I like to put the background information, timeline, and research plan in one document.

2. Stay focused. As I’ve mentioned before, you should have a specific goal in mind for your research, such as “Who are Emmeline’s parents?” It is easy to get sidetracked. For every goal you have, there may be a series of little jobs needed to accomplish it. If you get to thinking about other research goals for other ancestors, make note of those ideas for another time, and stay on target. Don’t just make a plan for what you want, tell yourself how to find what you’re looking for. If you have to stop your research for a while, you’ll be grateful for the reminder.

3. Don’t over-plan. I remember once when I really wanted to plan for every contingency in an upcoming research problem. I literally wrote down 28 things I could investigate, that would possibly solve my problem. I followed the plan and ordered a vital record that was at the top of my list. Imagine my consternation when I got the vital record back and it changed the focus of everything I had on the rest of my list. The moral of the story is to not plan too far ahead, because the information we find may not be what we expected. Nowadays, I generally make a plan that involves 3 to 5 items, and I don’t go further until I have the results of one or two of them. This takes us to our next point…

4. Be flexible. Remember that theories about what our ancestors did and why are just that: Theories. Not proof. Not evidence. Our research is directed at finding the truth, and that may not necessarily follow our theories. When you get results from your research, take that into account. It may change the rest of your plan. I don’t think I have ever had a single research plan that did not change with time.

5. Plan effectively. If you want to find Emmeline’s parents, the first part of your plan should be the most effective strategy, not necessarily the easiest. Perhaps finding Emmeline’s obituary (and searching a few newspapers line-by-line) is more effective that finding every Emmeline (maiden name unknown) that lived in a certain census year. Effective doesn’t mean easy, nor does it necessarily mean difficult. Effective means you are more likely to get results. By far, the most effective things I find to put at the top of any research plan is to order birth, marriage, and death records, if they are available at the ancestor’s time period and location. What this really involves is finding out what records are available in your ancestor’s location. Try the FamilySearch Wiki for some great ideas from other researchers.

6. Some plans are location-based. Sometimes you know you are going to travel to a major facility, such as the LDS Family History Library in Salt Lake, or the National Archives in Washington, DC. While they may not have everything you want to answer your research question (vital records are rarely at the National Archives, for example), you still need to plan to make the best use of your time. Find out information about hours, parking, copies, and restrictions so you do not get frustrated about something that has nothing to do with your actual research. Go online ahead of time to check online catalogs and plan out what you want most, and what can be your “Plan B” while you are waiting for records to be pulled or you don’t find what you wanted.

A sample research plan may look like the one below. Remember to adapt yours as needed. The research plan police are not out to get you. Over time, you may find you create your plans differently than you had in the past. The important thing is to make a plan, and refer to it often as you research.

Research Plan for finding Emmeline’s parents, born about 1869 in Genesee County, New York:

Background information: Emmeline (no known maiden name) was married to Augustus Wingate, probably by 1887, in Genesee County, New York. She died in 1937 in Washington, DC.

What to do and why:
• Order death certificate for Emmeline Wingate in Washington DC 1937. HOW: They should be on LDS microfilm, check the catalog. WHY: Emmeline’s maiden name and parents’ names should be listed on her death certificate.
• Check for obituary of Emmeline Wingate in Washington DC in 1937. HOW: Find the online Historic Washington Post available through many public libraries. WHY: Find out if it mentions any parents or living siblings.
• Order the marriage record of Augustus Wingate in Genesee County in 1887. HOW: New York vital records started in 1881, but not all were recorded. Call the county historian for instructions, the record is too early to be at the State Archives. WHY: Some marriage applications list the parents of the bride, or the witnesses may be relatives.
• Check for censuses in Genesee County in 1880. HOW: Use Ancestry or HeritageQuest online. WHY: Where is Augustus living? Could Emmeline be living in the same county or a nearby county?

In this sample, I already have four ideas. While there are other things I could do, I may consider these to be the most effective. As the results come from my research, I may change or add more information. If, for example I find that Augustus lives in the town of Batavia in Genesee County, I might want to know more about church records available for that area. Read up on research plans in many books at your local library and in online tutorials. One of my personal favorites is an article by Helen F. M. Leary, “Problem Analysis and Research Plans,” Chapter 14 of Professional Genealogy (Elizabeth Shown Mills, Editor. Baltimore, Maryland: Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc., Fourth Printing, 2005).

Remember, a plan is only the first step. How far will it take you? Try it out and let us know!