Have you found all the school records there are to be had for your ancestors? Most of us haven’t, and the chances are very good that there are still some gems out there waiting to be found. Here are ten solid strategies that will help you track them down for your genealogy research.
Because the movement for compulsory public education didn’t begin until the 1920s, many people assume that there few records to be had for genealogical purposes prior to that time. The reality couldn’t be further from the truth. Many children attended school much earlier.
In fact, it may be surprising to learn that the first public school in what is now the United States opened in the 17th century. On April 23, 1635, the first public school was established in Boston, Massachusetts.
Illustration of the Boston Latin School by Ebenezer Thayer, courtesy of Wikimedia
It was a boys-only public secondary school called the Boston Latin School, and it was led by schoolmaster Philemon Pormont, a Puritan settler. The school was strictly for college preparation, and produced well-known graduates including John Hancock and Samuel Adams. It’s most famous dropout? Benjamin Franklin! The school is still in operation today, though in a different location.
Thousands of schools serving millions of students have been established in the U.S. since the inception of the Boston Latin School. (According to 2015-16 data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) there are 132,853 K-12 schools in the U.S.) This means that the chances of there being school records for your ancestors is great indeed!
10 Solid Strategies for Finding School Records for Genealogy
Here are 10 proven ways to find your ancestors’ awkward yearbook photos, sports triumphs, and much, much more.
1. Establish a Timeline of your Ancestor’s Education
Check your genealogy software database to figure out when your ancestor would have attended high school or college. Keep in mind, as recently as the 1960s, children did not go to Kindergarten but may have started school at about 6 years old and beginning in First Grade.
To keep my search organized, I decided to create a simple worksheet form in a Word document. This allows me to identify the right time frames, locations, and other pertinent information for my search, and record my progress along the way.
Here’s an example of a worksheet I started on searching for my Grandma’s school records.
2. Consult Family Papers and Books for School Records
Go through old family papers and books looking for things like:
senior calling cards,
high school autograph books,
journals and diaries,
fraternity or sorority memorabilia,
yearbooks and more.
When I dug through boxes and my grandmother’s cedar chest I found several records like…
a Report Card:
My grandmother’s brother’s 6th grade report card found among family papers.
Grandma’s class picture from the 7th grade in 1925, Chowchilla, California. She is in the back row on the far right, and her brother is the boy in the center of the back row:
Grandma (back row, far right) with her 7th grade class.
And Grandma’s senior portrait, 1930:
Grandma’s senior portrait from 1930
3. Google for Academic Family History
From the professional website of the state archives to the family history site cobbled together by a cousin you’ve never met, the potential for finding school records on the vast expanse of the internet is limitless! Google is the tool to help you locate websites that include school-related records with lightning speed.
Since I’m not sure which school my grandmother attended, I started off my search for my grandmother’s school with a simple query for the history of schools in the county where she lived as a child:
Google search for the history of school’s in the county
I was pleasantly surprised at the first search result. It’s a newspaper article from the Madera Tribune literally outlining the history of how the schools evolved in the county! It details such things as the driving forces behind where schools were located, when they were founded, and which ones at the time of the article were no longer in existence.
History of Madera Schools Outlined in the Madera Tribune, September 1955.
Next, I focused my attention on the grade school listed on Grandma’s brother’s 6th grade report card that I discovered during my search of family papers. I Googled the name of the school, county and state.
A search like this can literally deliver millions of results. In fact, this specific search brings up over 1 million search results.
You can typically reduce the unwanted search results by 90% by using search operators. These symbols and words give Google further instructions on what you want done with the words you are searching.
While I cover a large number of operators in my book The Genealogists’s Google Toolbox, I’m going to use just one of the most popular to dramatically improve my search for the Sharon school.
In the example below I put quotation marks around the name of the school. Doing this explains to Google that I want this phrase to appear exactly as I typed it in every single search result. You’ve probably noticed that when you search a phrase by itself, you’ll receive results that include only one of the words, or the words spelled differently, or in a different order. The quotation marks search operator prevents this from happening. It mandates that the phrase appear on every result exactly as you typed it.
Using Search Operators to Google the Grade School
Notice that I didn’t put quotation marks around the county name or the state. I recommend using search operators sparingly, at least in your initial search, to ensure that you don’t miss out on good results. If I were to put quotations marks around “Madera county” I would not receive any web pages that do mention Sharon School but just don’t happen to mention Madera County as a phrase.
Notice also that this search resulted in just over 11,000 results, a small fraction of what I would have received had I not used the quotation marks! Even more important is that the results on the first few pages of are all very good matches.
I could try a few more variations such as adding words like history, genealogy or records.
4. Search Newspapers
Historic newspaper are also a wonderful source of honor rolls, school sporting events and anything else having to do with school life.
While there are certainly more historic newspapers online than ever before, it’s still a fraction of what is available.
Click the U.S. Newspaper Directory button at Chronicling America
On the Directory search page, enter the state, county and town:
Search the U.S. Newspaper Director for the school location.
On the results page, click the “View complete holding information” link:
Click “View the holdings”
Now you can view all of the known available locations for this item:
The item I searched for has three known locations.
In my case, the Chowchilla newspaper of the early 20th century has not been digitized and is not available online. However, the California State Archives in Sacramento has an extensive collection of microfilm. I was able to make the trip in person, and was certainly glad I did! They not only had the newspaper I needed but also countless other resources that were helpful for my genealogical research.
My Grandma listed by name in the newspaper for making the Freshman high school honor roll.
Here are additional resources to help you find newspapers for your school records research:
Local newspapers can also be found by searching for the public library website in the town where your ancestor attended school. Check the library’s online card catalog or contact them directly to see what newspapers they have and whether any can be loaned (on microfilm) through inter-library loan.
Click here to search Genealogy Bank – (This page includes a 7 day free trial option.) This popular subscription website has over 11,000 newspaper, 95% of which Genealogy Bank says are exclusive to their website.
My book, How to Find Your Family History in Newspapers provides a newspaper search methodology including all of these suggestions plus many more. Click here for a special discount savings at the Genealogy Gems store. (Disclosure: The links above are affiliate links. Genealogy Gems will be compensated if you click them and make a purchase. Thank your for supporting this free article and the free podcast.)
5. Consult U.S. State Archives and Libraries
The public libraries and state archives across the country are a treasure trove of genealogical resources, and that includes school-related records.
While it’s easy to stop by your local library for a search, it may not be as easy to make your way to the public library in the town where your ancestors lived. Turn to the internet to do your homework regarding the repositories, their holdings, and the most convenient and economical way for you to access them.
A great place to start is the WorldCat website.
Start by conducting a search. Once you find an item of interest, enter your zip code under the “Find a Copy in the Library” section to identify where it’s available.
Enter your zip code to determine your proximity to the libraries and archives.
As you can see, the name of the libraries are hyperlinked so that you can click through to the item on their website. This makes requesting a look-up or photo copy very easy.
I can’t stress the value of State Libraries enough. Gere are two more excellent resources:
Click here to read Archivist Melissa Barker’s article called Using Veritcal Files in Archives.
6. Contact State Historical and Genealogical Societies
In addition to newspapers, state historical and genealogical societies might have old yearbooks, school photograph collections or other records. For example, the Ohio Genealogical Society library has a large collection of Ohio school yearbooks.
Local historical and genealogical societies may also have school memorabilia in their small or archived collections.
To find contact information for a local historical or genealogical society, Google the name of the county and state and add the words genealogy, history and / or society at the end. For example: Darke County Ohio genealogy society.
7. Search for Online Yearbooks
One of the most exciting genealogical record collections to have come out in recent times is Ancestry.com’s U.S. School Yearbooks 1900-1999 collection. It is an indexed collection of middle school, junior high, high school, and college yearbooks from across the United States.
In June of 2019 Ancestry replaced old records with new updated records for most of the yearbooks found on the site. They also added new records from 150,000 yearbooks that previously only had images available. Later in August of 2019 they improved the collection even further by adding a staggering 3.8 million new records. This update also included 30,000 new image-only books.
Ancestry also has an extensive indexed collection of middle school, junior high, high school, and college yearbooks for Canada. Click here to search the Canadian collection.
Additional websites featuring yearbooks include:
Old-Yearbooks.com – According to the website, “Old-Yearbooks.com is a free genealogy site, displaying old yearbooks, class rosters, alumni lists, school photos and related school items. All materials on this site are the property of the submitter. You may not use the images, text or materials elsewhere, whether in print or electronically, without written permission from the submitter or this site.”
Classmates.com – “Register for free to browse hundreds of thousands of yearbooks! You’ll find classic photos of friends, family, and even your favorite celebrities. Viewing the books is always free, and you can purchase a high-quality reprint.”
8. Check Township Archives
You might be thinking you didn’t read that right, but you did. Townships are small areas within the county. These small townships may have their own archives or one room museums. They are often the holders of some pretty one-of-a-kind finds.
The best way to determine what the township may have is to contact the township trustees. Google your township name, the county name, state name, and add the word trustee. You will likely need to give one of the trustees’ a phone call to ask what resources might be available.
The auction website ebay is the perfect place to look for school record and memorabilia, particularly hard-to-find yearbooks.
Conduct a search on the school or town you are looking for to see if anyone is selling a yearbook that you want. (You’ll need a free ebay account to do this.) Also, search for old photographs or postcards of the school building that you can add to your family history.
Initial search for school items at ebay
When I searched for Chowchilla California School, several auctions for school-related items from Grandma’s high school came up. Unfortunately, these are auctions for yearbooks after she had already graduated. But no worries! This search is only for today. Tomorrow someone could put up an auction for exactly what I want. There’s only one problem: no one has enough time to search every single day!
A way to save time and ensure that you don’t miss new auction items is to save your search.
Click the Save this search button toward the top of the page:
Click the Save button to save the search you just ran.
By doing this, you will be sent an email any time a new auction comes up that meets your search criteria. You can learn more about setting up ebay saved searches for family history by listening to Genealogy Gems Podcastepisode #140.
Here’s another one of my favorite strategies: After you run your initial search, check the box on the results page to include completed listings.
Click the Completed search box in the left hand column
In the revised “Completed” search results you may see some items that are of interest. If the item has a green price, it means the item was sold. If the price is black, it did not sell.
Each item will also have a link that says View Similar Active Items. Click that to see a list of items currently for sale that are very similar to one that you wanted.
You can also contact the seller of any item to inquire about the unsold item or to ask whether they have related items.
Bought on ebay: A yearbook from the school where my husband’s grandfather was a music teacher
I bought the yearbook above on ebay several years ago. It includes several photographs of my husband’s grandfather who was a music teacher at the high school back in the 1940s.
10. Call the School
If the school is still in operation, try calling the main office of the administration office. They may have old yearbooks and scrapbooks in their library or on display. If they don’t, they may very well be able to tell you where they can be found.
You can obtain contact information by Googling the name of the school and the location.
Good times to try calling a school are mid-morning after kids are settled into class, or between 3 and 4:00 pm local time, when many of the kids have gone home but the school office is still open.
Tell Us About the School Records You Find
Using these strategies you are bound to find more school records for your genealogical search. Please leave a comment below and share what you found, where you found it, and which strategy you used. It will inspire us all to keep looking! And if you have a favorite strategy that we didn’t mention here, please do share that too.
Learn More by Listening to the Free Podcast
Have you listened to the Genealogy Gems Podcast yet? The free podcast has been downloaded nearly 3 million times worldwide. Why not tune in and see what everyone’s been listening to? You’ll get tech tips, inspiring stories, research coaching and please-try-this-at-home examples you’ll want to try right away!
In this episode we take a look at a subject that is difficult, and yet ultimately faced by all genealogists: Downsizing. Whether you need to help a relative downsize, or it’s time for you to move into a smaller place or just carve out more room in your existing home, this episode is for you. You’ll hear specific action steps that you can follow to the make the job of downsizing easier and more productive.
Also in this episode we’ll cover the latest genealogy news, and take a quick look at the 1830 census.
Please take our quick podcast survey which will take less than 1 minute. Thank you!
New and Returning genealogy-themed television Shows:
A New Leaf on NBC
A New Leaf will be included in the Saturday NBC morning programming block called The More You Know beginning October 5, 2019.
From the Ancestry Blog:
“Each week ‘A New Leaf’ will follow people on the cusp of key life inflection points, who using family history, genealogy, and sometimes AncestryDNA® analysis will go on a journey of self-discovery and learn from the past while looking to the future. In partnership with Ancestry, Fuentes will join families as they learn the importance of appreciating and understanding their family history and ancestors in order to make important life decisions. ”
“Genealogist-on-Demand: Legacy Tree Genealogists Launches Virtual Consultation Service Offering Access to Family History Experts, Any Time, Any Where.
Legacy Tree Genealogists announced today the launch of a new service—45-minute, virtual one-on-one consultations with a professional genealogist. At only 100 USD, these consultations provide users with a cost-effective resource to have their research questions answered in real-time by a professional genealogist, from the comfort of their own home.
Users have the option to schedule either a DNA Consultation with a genetic genealogist who can explain their DNA test results, or a Genealogy Consultation with access to one of their worldwide researchers with expertise in regions around the globe, including England, Ireland, Scotland, and Australia.
Tailored to your specific research questions, the one-on-one consultations are conducted utilizing screen sharing technology that allows the user to share documents, records, or DNA results with the genealogist in a secure, virtual environment.
Legacy Tree will continue to expand its consultation offerings to include additional regions in the near future in order to continue to serve the global genealogy community.”
In the past I’ve told you about the incredible work that Larsen Digital did for me getting some of my old home movies digitized. Well, they’ve just launched a new service where you can send them your old negatives and they will convert them into beautiful high-resolution digital images that you can use. We’re talking 4000 dpi images!
I’ve had boxes of negatives in my closet that I inherited from my paternal grandmother. She had negatives for all sorts of pictures that are either long since lost or the photo album went to someone else in the family.
I really had no idea what these old photos would turn out to be, but I ended up with wonderful images of my great grandmother, my grandparents, my Dad when he was a kid, and countless relatives.
The service is called Value because it’s less expensive than the Pro which includes restoration. It’s a great way to get all your old negatives digitized. Then you can decide if there’s further restoration you want done on select images.
DIY: You can do color correction and repairs yourself with a simple free app like Adobe Fix. See my book Mobile Genealogy for much more on using this and other apps for genealogy.
Negatives can deteriorate over time just like photos. The sooner you get them digitized the better condition images you will have.
Larsen Digital is offering Genealogy Gems listeners a great discount on both the new value service and the Pro negative digitization service, as well as 35mm negatives & 35mm Slides. Visit the Genealogy Gems page at Larsen Digital here and use the coupon code GENGEM.
Here are a few examples of old negatives that I had digitized by Larsen Digital.
My Dad with this family’s first TV set!
Never before seen image of my great grandmother (seated), her daughter and grand daughter. Watch the video that autoplays on this page to see how I restored this photo after receiving the digitized image.
It’s really kind of amazing to think I’ve sat on these negatives for so long. I’ve been sending the pictures to my Dad and he’s been emailing me back not just the names and dates, but the stories behind many of these photos.
Findmypast Now Supports Tree to Tree Hints
Long gone are the days of having to search for genealogical records all alone. When you have any part of your family tree online on any of the “Genealogy Giants” websites (Ancestry, MyHeritage, Findmypast and FamilySearch) they do a lot of the hunting for you. They deliver hints that have a good chance of matching up with your ancestors. Your job is to carefully review them and determine if they are your ancestor’s records.
(Genealogy Gems Premium Members: Listen to Premium Podcast Episode #175 devoted to hints at Ancestry that includes a bonus download guide on Genealogy Hints at a Glance.)
Up until now, Findmypast offered hints on birth, marriage and death records. Now they are joining the other Genealogy Giants in offering hints based on other user’s family tree on their website.
Lisa Louise Cooke uses and recommends RootsMagic family history software for her master family tree. Visit www.RootsMagic.com
GEM: Downsizing with Family History in Mind with Devon Noel Lee
Get your copy of Downsizing with Family History in Mindhere. (We hope you enjoyed the interview. Disclosure: Genealogy Gems is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com. Thank you for supporting our free podcast by using our link.)
Click the image to order your copy.
At some point we all face downsizing. Whether we are helping our parents downsize to a smaller house, or we need to downsize our own belongings to carve out a spare bedroom or just make room in a closet. it’s never really an easy task. And I think it’s safe to say it’s even more difficult for the family historian, because we collect a lot of paper, photos and other things that are often near and dear to our hearts.
Devon Noel Lee and her husband Andrew Lee of the Family History Fanatics YouTube channel have taken on this challenge themselves and they’ve written a new book called Downsizing with Family History in Mind. Here to help you make the tough choices and clear the clutter is Devon Noel Lee.
There are many reasons for downsizing:
To move to a smaller place
Absorbing inherited genealogy
To free up space in your own home
Downsizing the sentimental items is the hardest part of downsizing.
Question: A lot of us just think, well it’s a Saturday morning, I think I’ll just do some decluttering. But you say in the book that decluttering doesn’t work. Why is that?
“There are three things that experts teach us that are absolutely wrong:”
We don’t give ourselves enough time for nostalgia.
We’re really bad at evaluating what’s going to last for the long term
We use the wrong boxes when decluttering – all the experts say to use Keep, Sell and Donate.
Devon recommends the following boxes:
Giveaway (combining sell and donate) – to family, societies, archive, university special collections, libraries, etc.
Trash (or recycle)
How to “process”:
Process the information in your binders and get rid of the binders if no one wants them.
Sad to say, most people don’t want your family china. Give yourself permission to use it and enjoy it now. Make memories with it!
Let your children play with things.
Four Basic Downsizing Principles in the book:
Reduce: Divide things into the boxes.
Preserve: This is when you’re going to digitize the things in your process box. Photograph objects. Transfer your genealogy into software and online trees.
Reclaim: Take everything out of the process box after processing, and divide into Giveaway, Trash and Keep. Don’t put things into storage!
Showcase: Put on display what you found worth keeping so it can be enjoyed. Transform what you have into something that is easier to pass on like videos, podcasts, scrapbooks. Focus on story-based items.
From Lisa: It puts us back in control as to what happens to it. Making sure the right people get it.
I’m a big fan of displays. If we haven’t taken a moment to get something on the wall – to put a display together – how can we expect our family to appreciate it and embrace our family history values?
Question: Many downsizing projects are much more than a single day. When you’re faced with a really big job, where do you recommend that people start, and where should they put their primary focus?
The book includes action plans for folks who have:
just an hour
Capture what is right now:
Photograph the outside of the home.
Photograph what’s inside.
Then focus on photographing the collections in their context.
Mentioned by Lisa:
Genealogy Gems Podcast episode #21 includes a Gem called Thanks for the Memories. In it, I share an example of mentally walking through my Grandma’s house and capturing all of my memories on paper.
Get a piece of paper or pull up a word document. Close your eyes for a moment and visualize a favorite memory from your childhood.
In my case I started with a favorite place, my maternal grandma’s house. But perhaps yours is the back alley where you and your friends played baseball, or your great uncle’s garage where he showed you how to work on cars. Whatever is meaningful to you.
Now, open your eyes, and write your thoughts one at a time. Just free flow it. They don’t have to be complete sentences.
Later you can try your hand at writing more of your actual experiences or memories of a person. Again, it doesn’t have to be a novel or sound really professional. It’s just the memories from you heart.
Question: If we have piles and piles of family photos, particularly ones we’ve inherited, how to do we decide which to keep and which to toss? Or do you ever toss?
Get rid of the duplicates!
Keep 1 of the biggest and best and throw the rest away. Don’t bog yourself down with hours spent trying to track down someone else to give them to.
Get rid of blurry, overexposed, underexposed, and meaningless photos.
There will be some circumstances where you will not be able to keep them. You can’t go into debt for unlabeled photos. You want to separate them from the labeled so that other family members don’t throw them all out together.
If you have time, try to identify them by asking relatives, and posting them to DeadFred.com.
If you can, donate the remaining unlabeled photos to orphaned photo collectors, or toss.
You did the best you can. Don’t feel guilty because your ancestors didn’t label their photos.
Question: What advice do you give your readers who are faced with what to do with their genealogy when they don’t have descendants or when no one in the family wants it? What encouragement can you offer when there is no one who descends from you, or there is no one who wants them.
If you think you don’t have anyone in your family who is interested, you’re wrong.
Downsizing and organizing will increase the chances of someone willing to take it later.
If you don’t have anyone in your immediate family who wants your stuff, start looking for distant cousins actively working on a surname. They won’t want everything. You will have to divide the material. They want it organized.
Do it while you’re living – don’t leave it to someone else.
Digitize it and get it online where it can be shared.
Getting your stuff in good condition makes it more desirable.
Our collection, broken up, may have much more value to other people.
Get your copy of Downsizing with Family History in Mindhere. (We hope you enjoyed the interview, and thank you for using our link.)
The free podcast is sponsored by:
MyHeritage.com is the place to make connections with relatives overseas, particularly with those who may still live in your ancestral homeland. Click the logo to learn more.
GEM: Profile America – The 1830 U.S. Federal Census
Saturday, October 5th.
The national census to be taken April 1 next year will be the 24th time this once-a-decade count has been conducted since 1790. The fifth census in 1830 profiled a quickly expanding nation, counting nearly 13 million residents — an increase of more than one-third in just 10 years.
New York remained the largest city, while second and third places were a near tie between Baltimore and Philadelphia. Also, among the 10 biggest cities were Charleston, South Carolina, and Albany, New York.
In the decade to follow, Cyrus McCormick invented the grain reaper, opening huge sections of the Great Plains to agriculture, and Texas declared its independence from Mexico.
Please take our quick podcast survey which will take less than 1 minute. Thank you!
In this Episode
Today we’re going to take a look at what so many records and record collections have in common: they are often Lists. Now that may sound pretty straight forward, but there’s a lot more to Lists than meet the eye.
A list of names, places or other information has a lot to tell us and can be used in unique ways. Professional genealogist Cari Taplin joins me in this episode for a conversation about what is so lovely about lists.
My Summer Vacation
If you’ve been following me on Instagram – you can find me here on Instagram or by searching for genealogy gems podcast in the free Instagram app – then you know that I’ve spent a bit of my time this summer getting a taste of some of the work many of my ancestors did and probably that many of your ancestors did: farming.
Bill and I have a close friend who owns his grandfather’s 1904 homestead in North Dakota. A few years back Bill went up there to help them open it back up and get things up and running. This year we helped them harvest their crop of oats. (They even have a sign in the field that says, “These oats will grow up to be Cheerios”)
Of course, we used equipment that our ancestors may not have had. I learned to drive the combine, and I turned the field with the tractor. But in many ways, things haven’t changed all that much.
One of the things that really struck me was how the farming community out there pulls together.
Now to put this in perspective: the 240-acre homestead is about two miles down a dirt road from Canada. The house has fallen into disrepair over the decades, so our friend bought an old farmhouse in the nearby town where he grew up. That town has a population of just over 50 people!
North Dakota farmland. Photo Credit: Lisa Louise Cooke, Genealogy Gems
So, we’re talking about a pretty remote location, and folks are scattered on various farms miles apart. But when a tractor was in need of repair, within the hour a neighbor would be pulling up ready to crawl under it alongside our friend to work on it till it was fixed. When a piece of equipment was needed that he didn’t have, it would soon be rolling down the road from a neighboring farm to pitch in.
Everyone had one eye on the sky at all times to watch the ever-changing weather, and there was such a commitment by all to make sure no neighbor was left with unharvested crops before a storm hit.
So even though the combines of today are motorized massive machines with air conditioning and stereos, the work ethic, the commitment and the community was unchanged from when his granddad first filed his homestead claim. Bill and I felt really blessed to be a part of it.
Think of us next time you eat your cheerios.
MyHeritage.com is the place to make connections with relatives overseas, particularly with those who may still live in your ancestral homeland. Click the logo above to get started.
GEM: Interview with Cari Taplin
If you’ve been doing genealogy for any length of time, then you have probably encountered a list. They come in all shapes and sizes, and at first glance they may seem very straight forward.
Cari Taplin, a certified genealogist out of Pflugerville, Texas, says it’s worth taking the time to really examine lists carefully because there may be more there than meets the eye.
Cari currently serves on the boards of the Association for Professional Genealogists and is the Vice President of Membership for the Federation of Genealogical Societies. As the owner of GenealogyPANTS, she provides speaking, research, and consultation services, focusing on midwestern and Great Lakes states and methodology.
Types of Lists
Nearly every time we sit down to do genealogy research we run into a list. There are loads of them out there. Here’s just a starter list of the lists you might run into:
indexes of any kind
members of a club or society
fraternal organization member lists
lists in newspapers like hotel registrations, letters at post office
hospital admittances and discharges
land lottery winners
school class lists
Census records are examples of lists
Significance of List Construction
Of course, not every list is alphabetically organized by any means. We might run into a list of prison inmates listed by number, or burial sites listed by plot or location. The information can be organized in many different ways.
Cari says that the way the list maker decided to organize the list tells us a lot about the information.
For example, a list that is alphabetized might be an indication that it is a recreated list. Other ways that lists may be constructed include chronologically or by location.
Here are follow up tasks you can do:
Evaluate for potential error
Locate the original source
List Explanation or Instructions
Understanding the thinking behind how the list was constructed is also important.
The U.S. Federal Census is a great example of a list that has other background documents such as the enumerator instructions. We don’t see these instructional documents unless we go looking for them. The instructions provide background on the creation of the list, and that can help us get more out of it.
Research Tip: Measuring America: The Decennial Censuses From 1790 to 2000. From that page you download the PDF of enumerator instructions.
Here’s an example of how understanding the census enumerator instructions can help you better understand how to interpret it:
In 1900 the census was answered as if it were a particular day. This means that if someone died a few days later, they may still be listed as alive in the 1900 census. If you know that they died that year, you now have more information that it was after the enumeration date.
Genealogy websites like Ancestry, FamilySearch and MyHeritage often provide background on the creation and purpose of their record collections.
Tax List example: there are laws behind them. Look up the statute. Google to find summations of tax laws at the time. Keep in mind that they might be in order of location.
When analyzing a list, ask yourself the following questions:
What was this list created for?
Why is it in this order?
What does that then tell me about these people?
What’s we’re really talking about is educating ourselves
so that we’re not contributing to the errors that get out there.
It’s an investment in accuracy.
It can be tempting to just scan the list, grab your ancestor out of it, and move on. But if we do that, we could be leaving a lot of genealogical gold behind.
“Evidence mining requires attention to detail, including details that might initially seem insignificant.” ––BCG, Genealogy Standards, #40, p. 24
Here are some ideas as to what we should look for:
Sometimes it’s just a name (example: petition lists)
There might be columns at the top – pay attention to those details for more understanding
Other people in the list: the FAN Club (Friends, Associates, Neighbors.) Look for those names in other documents.
Organizing Your Research and the Data Collected from Lists
Cari uses spreadsheets to organize her genealogical research project data.
Come of the benefits of using a spreadsheet are that you can:
Addresses found in German Address Books marked in the spreadsheet
Explore the Bigger List
Often times you do a search, and you find a single record. But that single record is actually part of a massive internal list, an indexed list from which the search engine is pulling.
An example of this is when you run a search for your ancestor at the Bureau of Land Management website (BLM). After finding your ancestor’s record, you can then run a search by that land description to find other people who owned land and possibly lived nearby.
“Evidence mining requires attention to detail, including details that might initially seem insignificant.” – BCG, Genealogy Standards, #40, p.24
Review the Genealogical Proof Standard in the show notes for Genealogy Gems Podcastepisode 232.
2 men with 1 name
When everyone in the family wants to name their children after Grandpa, you can end up with a lot people in a county with the same name. You need to tease them apart.
Questions to ask:
Who did they associate with?
Who were their siblings?
Where were each of them located?
All of these things can help differentiate them. A spreadsheet is an excellent tool for this.
The Yearbook List Example
Very often the list of names is the full list of students. However, not every student necessarily had their photo taken. Count the names and then count the photos to verify you have the right person. Search the Ancestry Yearbook collection to try and find another photo of the person to compare.
Cari’s Main Message
Don’t skip over a list because it’s lacking some identifying information. You still need to record it. You may come back to it one day!
Wednesday, September 11th. This was a day that didn’t exist in Colonial America in 1752, as the familiar calendar underwent what is called the “Gregorian correction,” switching from the ancient Julian calendar to adjust for errors accumulated over centuries.
After September 2nd, the next day was September 14th. The British parliament’s Calendar Act of 1750 had also changed New Year’s Day from March 25th to January 1st. As a result, the year 1751 had only 282 days. Since then, with leap years built in as in 2020, the calendar has remained constant.
My genealogy research looks a lot like yours. Some family tree lines go back to pre-Revolutionary War. Other lines are richly researched well into the early 19th century.
And then there’s THAT family line. You know the one I mean. The one where the courthouse containing the records we need has burned down, or the records were microfilmed ages ago but are still sitting in the FamilySearch granite vault due to copyright issues. Or worst of all, it appears the needed records just don’t exist.
Don’t let these obstacles allow you to give up hope.
Every day, new records are being discovered and digitized. Records that have been languishing in a copyright stalemate might suddenly be cleared for publication. Or a cousin could contact you out of the blue and has the letters your grandmother sent hers. We never know when the records we’ve been waiting for, searching for, and yearning for, will bubble up to the surface.
Today I’m happy to share my story of a recent breakthrough that I never saw coming. Follow along with me as I take newly unearthed rocks and use tools to turn them into sparkling gems.
This is Almost Embarrassing
My one, agonizing family line that stops short in its tracks ends with my great grandfather Gustave Sporowski.
Gustave and Louise Sporowski (personal collection)
It’s almost embarrassing to admit. I’ve been at this nearly my whole life, and genealogy is my career for goodness sake! But there it is, a family tree with lovely far-reaching limbs except for this little stub of a branch sticking out on my maternal grandmother’s side.
I was about eight years old the first time I asked my grandma about her parents and their families. (Yes, this genealogy obsession goes back that far with me!) I still have the original page of cryptic notes she scratched out for me during that conversation.
Excerpt from Grandma’s original notes. (Personal collection)
She had several nuggets of information about her mother’s family. However, when it came to her father Gustave, she only recalled that he was the youngest of seven brothers. No names came to mind. I’ve always felt that if I could just identify some of the brothers, one of them may have records that provide more details about their parents.
According to his Petition for Naturalization, Gustave Sporowksi and Louise Nikolowski were married in LutgenDortmund, Germany. This indicated that both moved west from East Prussia before emigrating. While I knew Louise’s immediate family were in the LutgenDortmund area as well, I had no idea whether Gustave moved there on his own or with his family.
Gustave Sporowski’s Petition for Naturalization.
Gus (as he was later known) emigrated from Germany in 1910, landing at Ellis Island. He toiled in the coal mines of Gillespie, Illinois, and eventually earned enough money to move his wife and children west to California in 1918.
After filing his papers and years of waiting, he proudly became a U.S. citizen in 1940.
On that paperwork, he clearly states his birthplace as Kotten, Germany. You won’t find this location on a map today. In 1881, the year he was born, the area was East Prussia. I remember the hours I spent with gazeteers many years ago trying to locate that little village nestled just within the border of Kreis Johannisburg. Being so close to the border meant that he could have attended church there or in a neighboring district.
The records in the area are scarce, and today the entire area is in Poland.
Surprisingly, the records situation is quite the opposite with his wife Louise, also from East Prussia. She lived not far away in Kreis Ortelsburg, and the records for the church her family attended in Gruenwald are plentiful. I’ve managed to go many more generations back with her family.
And so, poor Gus alone sits in my family tree.
I periodically search to see if there’s anything new that has surfaced, but to no avail. I even hired a professional genealogical firm to review my work and suggest new avenues. I guess it is good news to hear you’ve pursued all known available leads, but it’s not very rewarding.
Over time, we tend to revisit tough cases like this less frequently. They become quiet. Digital dust begins to settle on the computer files.
And then it all changes.
German Address Books at Ancestry.com
I regularly make the rounds of the various genealogy websites, making note of new additions to their online collections. I typically publish the updates on a weekly basis here on the Genealogy Gems blog. It makes my day when readers like you comment or email, bursting with excitement about how one of the collections I mentioned busted their brick wall. I love my job.
This week I’m the one who is bursting!
It started simply enough. My third stop on my regular records round-up tour was Ancestry.com. The list of new records was particularly robust this week. The word “Germany” always catches my eye, and the second item on the list jumped out at me:
“Recently Added and Updated Collections on Ancestry,” Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 05 Sept 2019)
I should have had a healthy dose of skepticism that I would be fortunate enough to find anything. But to be perfectly honest, I felt instinctively that I would! Have you ever just had that feeling that your ancestors are sitting right there ready to be found? If you’ve been researching your family history for a while, then I’m guessing you have. Such a nice feeling, isn’t it?
So, I clicked, and I simply entered Sporowski in the last name field and clicked Search.
Experience has taught me that there haven’t been a lot of folks through history with this surname, so I’m interested in taking a look at anyone who pops up in the results. And yippie aye oh, did they ever pop up!
The results list include 31 people with the surname of Sporowski!
These names came from the pages of address books much like the city directories so common in the U.S. Since this collection was new to me, I took a moment to read up on the history.
GENEALOGY RESEARCH TIP: Learning the History of the Genealogy Record Collection
To truly understand what you are looking at when reviewing search results, we need to acquaint ourselves with the history of the collection.
Why was it created?
What does it include?
What does it not include?
Look to the left of the search results and click Learn more about this database.
It’s definitely worth clicking this link because the next page may also include a listing of Related Data Collections, some of which you might not be aware. These could prove very useful, picking up the pace to finding more records.
In the case of foreign language records, look for a link to the Resource Center for that country. There you may find translation help and tips for interpreting handwriting and difficult-to-read script.
Ancestry Help Features
On the Learn more about this database page, I learned some important things about these search results.
First, not every citizen was listed. Only heads of households were included. This means that wives and children would not appear. I did find some widows, though, because they were the head of their household.
Second, Optical Character Recognition (OCR) was used on this collection. Ancestry suggests looking for errors and providing corrections. But this information about OCR also implies something even more important to the genealogist. We must keep in mind that OCR is not perfect. In this case, I planned on browsing the collection after reviewing the search results to ensure I didn’t miss anyone. This would include targeting people listed in the “S” section of directories for towns I might expect the family to be.
I was particularly thrilled to see the name “Emil Sporowski” on the list.
Several months ago I found a World War I Casualty list from a newspaper published in 1918.
On it was listed Emil Sporowski and he was from the village of Kotten. This was the first mention of Gustave’s birthplace in the record of another Sporowski that I had ever found. So, you can imagine my delight as I stared at his name in the address book search results.
The icing on that cake was that he was listed in the address book of Bochum. That town name was very familiar to me because I had seen it on a few old family photos in Louise Sporowski’s photo album. Although the photos did not have names written on them, I could easily identify the folks who had the facial characteristics of Louise Nikolowski’s clan, and those sporting the large eyes with heavy lids like Gus.
Photo from Louise Nikolowski’s photo album.
Spreading the German Addresses Out with Spreadsheets
With one and a half pages delivering a total of 31 Sporowski names, I knew I had some work ahead of me to tease them apart. This got me thinking of Genealogy Gems Podcast episode that I’m currently working on, which features a conversation with professional genealogist Cari Taplin. When I asked Cari how she organizes her data, she told me that she uses spreadsheets. I’m not typically a spreadsheet kind of gal, but in this case, I could see the benefits. Spreadsheets offer a way to get everybody on one page. And with the power of Filters and Sorting you slice and dice the data with ease. My first sort was by town.
My Excel spreadsheet tracking German Address Books search results at Ancestry.com
GENEALOGY RESEARCH TIP: Free Genealogy Gems Download
Click here to download the simple yet effective spreadsheet I used for this research project. If you find your German ancestors in this collection, it’s ready to use. Otherwise, feel free to modify to suit your needs in a similar situation.
As you can see in the spreadsheet, these address books include occupations. For example, Emil was listed both as a Schmied and a Schlosser. A simple way to add the English translation to my spreadsheet was to go to Google.com and search Google Translate. Words and phrases can be translated right from the results page.
Translating the Occupation found in the German Address Books using Google Translate (Available at https://translate.google.com. Accessed 05 Sept 2019)
You can also find several websites listing German occupations by Googling old german occupations.
I quickly ran into abbreviations that were representing German words. For example, Lina Sporowski is listed with as Wwe .
A Google search of german occupations abbreviations didn’t bring a website to the top of the list that actually included abbreviations. However, by adding one of the abbreviations to the search such as “Wwe.” it easily retrieved web pages actually featuring abbreviations.
GENEALOGY RESEARCH TIP: Use Search Operators when Googling
Notice that I placed the abbreviation in quotation marks when adding it to my Google search query. Quotation marks serve as search operators, and they tell Google some very important information about the word or phrase they surround.
The quotation marks tell Google that this word or phrase must appear in every search result. (If you’ve ever googled several words only to find that some results include some of the words, and other results include others, this will solve your problem.)
They also tell Google that the word(s) MUST be spelled exactly the way it appears on each search result. This is particularly helpful when searching an abbreviation like Wwe. which isn’t actually a word. Without the quotation marks, you will likely get a response from Google at the top of the search results page asking you if you meant something else.
Katherine was my guest on Genealogy Gems Premium Podcast Episode #151 available exclusively to our Premium eLearning Members. She’s also written a couple of articles for Genealogy Gems on German translation:
As it turns out, Wwe. stands for Widow. This tells me that Lina’s husband was deceased by 1961.
Finding the German Addresses in Google Earth
The most glorious things found in these old address books are the addresses themselves!
Google Earth is the perfect tool to not only find the locations but clarify the addresses. Many were abbreviated, but Google Earth made quick work of the task.
Unlike other free Google Tools, Google Earth is available in a variety of forms:
Free downloadable software
Google Earth in the Chrome Web browser
A mobile app
Each has powerful geographic features, but I always recommend using the software. The web version and app don’t have all the tools available in the software. All versions require an internet connection. You can download the software here.
In the Google Earth search box I typed in the address. Don’t worry if you don’t have the full address or if you think it may be spelled incorrectly. Google Earth will deliver a results list of all the best options that most closely match.
In my case, reliable Google Earth not only gave me complete addresses, but also the correct German letters.
I went through the entire list. As I found each location in Google Earth, I checked it off on the spreadsheet.
Addresses found in German Address Books at Ancestry.com marked in the spreadsheet
GENEALOGY RESEARCH TIP: Create a Folder in Google Earth
When you have several locations like this to plot, I recommend creating a folder in the Places panel in Google Earth. It’s super easy to do and will help you stay organized. Here’s how:
Right-click (PC) on the MyPlaces icon at the top of the Places panel (left side of the Google Earth screen)
Select Add > Folder in the pop-up menu
A New Folder dialog box will appear
Type the name of your folder
Click OK to close the folder
You can drag and drop the folder wherever you want it in the Places panel
Click to select the folder before placing your Placemarks. That way each placemark will go in that folder. But don’t worry, if you get a placemark in the wrong spot, just drag and drop it into the folder.
The beauty of Google Earth as that you can start to visualize your data in a whole new way. Zooming out reveals these new findings within the context of previous location-based research I had done on related families. As you can see in the image below, all the Sporowskis that I found in the German Address books at Ancestry.com are clustered just five miles from where photos were taken that appear in Louise Sporowski’s photo album.
I’ve Only Just Begun to Discover my German Ancestors at Ancestry.com
We’ve covered a lot of ground today, but this is just the beginning. There are additional sources to track down, timelines to create, photos to match up with locations, and so much more. In many ways, I’ve only scratched the surface of possibilities. But I need to stop writing so I can keep searching! 😊
I hope you’ve enjoyed taking this journey with me. Did you pick up some gems along the way that you are excited to use? Please leave a comment below! Let us all know which tips and tools jumped out at you, and any gems that you found.
Two of my favorite things, cookies and genealogy, have more in common than you might think! Follow me down this genealogy rabbit hole and discover how you can take you family tree further!
Cookies for My Descendants!
My grandson loves Super Mario games and specifically the mascot Mario. (Actually both of my grandsons do!) So, when it came time to create a sweet treat for his birthday, I opted for sugar cookies decorated as Mario.
Normally I would use a cookie cutter to create a decorated character cookie. Unfortunately, the local craft stories didn’t carry the Mario cutter, and I didn’t have time to get it ordered and delivered.
I hit a cookie decorating brick wall.
But brick walls, whether in genealogy or cookie decorating can often be overcome.
When we come face to face with a brick wall, we need to assess the situation, seek additional advice, and assemble the appropriate tools.
In the case of ole Mario, I first found a drinking glass just slightly larger than the size I wanted the cookie to be. It worked well as a cookie cutter, but I later decided to improvise a cookie cutter of my own.
To create the cookie cutter, I copied an image of his face into a Word document, and then enlarged it to the size of a cookie and printed it out on a sheet of paper. I carefully cut the image out, and then placed the cut-out on a sheet of wax paper, drawing around the edges and then cutting it out.
Next I found a good, sharp paring knife. I placed the wax paper template on the rolled-out cookie dough and carefully cut around it with the paring knife. Brick wall busted!
The finished cookies for my grandson’s birthday
Are you a cookie cutter genealogist?
All this cookie cutting and problem solving got me thinking about genealogy. (Ok, I admit it – I’m always thinking about genealogy!) It brought to mind an email I received just the other day from a listener, Kristine, who described herself as a “cookie-cutter” researcher.
I just retired and guess what is first on my list of things I WANT to do? 🙂 I jumped in with both feet listening to your Premium podcasts and realized a few times that I am the ‘cookie-cutter’ researcher. But, no more. You are the Captain of my ship now. Thank you!
After binging on your podcasts the last two weeks, the first bit of advice I took was changing the way I searched on Newspapers.com. My family’s everyday life’s treasures were buried in the pages of the local news! You made me take a second look after I dismissed the possibility of ever reading about them.
Thank you so much for your dedicated work on behalf of all the genealogists. My Premium subscription will NEVER run out. When a family member says “I don’t know what to get you” I’m prepared to solve that dilemma!
A listener for life
I really admire how Kristine took an honest look at her current research techniques. She was open to acknowledging that she had more to learn. It’s just icing on the cake for me that she started listening to the Genealogy Gems Podcast.
It’s easy to become a cookie-cutter genealogist in today’s automated world.
Every day more and more is being done for us automatically. Genealogy record hints and matches on genealogy websites is just one example. These can be very effective tools, but they can also lull you into a false sense that the work is done or correct.
An accepted record hint can in no way be considered as work that is done or correct. It is only the beginning.
In Genealogy Gems Podcast episode #232 professional genealogist and lecturer Elissa Scalise Powell and I discussed the pitfalls of “shallow research,” or as Kristine described it, being a “cookie-cutter” researcher.
Elissa says that while we will find a lot of “low-hanging fruit” in the early days of our genealogical search, there always comes a time when we need to dig deeper. All genealogists will need to stretch and reach for other sources. These types of sources are:
possibly unknown to you at this time,
not easily accessible,
time-consuming to explore,
take study to understand it,
Moving Beyond Cookie Cutter Genealogy
I also recently I received a question from a reader that provides a great example of a scenario where it’s time to move on to these rich and yet more challenging sources. Harold writes:
I have a totally “back to basics” question.
Since I started seriously doing genealogy about 8 months ago, I’ve learned a tremendous amount about my ancestors…families going back as far as those covered in the 1850 census and since then.
But once you get to the 1840 census and earlier, I do not understand how any genealogist can use the meager records in the census, that only identify the head of the family and the number of adults and children living in the household, to any sense prove that they are your ancestors, or to find their predecessors who are likely to have lived in another state.
After all, in those days, often maiden aunts, grandparents, and others stayed with families, so you can never be sure who all the people are.
And they had a dozen kids, not all of whom survived.
So you cannot count on just the “number” of people listed in the 1840 census to prove anything. Even worse, my ancestors, and I think most people’s, seemed to be moving westward every generation from the establishment of the colonies, so there are dozens of states to choose from, and hundreds or thousands of people with the same surnames in them.
I believe I have found the name of my great-grandfather on an 1840 census in Ohio (though it is possible it is just a duplicate name), but there is no telling where he lived in 1830 or earlier.
As far as I can tell, my ancestors were all poor dirt farmers, moved westward every generation, and didn’t have any records of stores or businesses they might have owned that would have those kinds of records. Yet, there are people who claim they can trace their ancestry back to the Mayflower and the like, but I do not understand how anyone can legitimately trace their ancestry back prior to 1840 unless they have something like a family Bible or similar transcription kept in the family.
Sure, you can find names on earlier census, but lots of people have the same name, and lots of names are spelled wrong, etc. and there are a lot of states and territories to choose from.
So how can ANYONE claim they can PROVE their ancestry from 1840 and before?
The “cookie cutter” Harold was using was the U.S. Federal Census. Cookie cutters provide great, consistent results, but over the decades the census cookie cutter shape changes. The check marks don’t provide the same level of details that we find in later enumerations.
For example, the 1850 U.S. Federal Census provided the name, age, and gender of everyone in the family. It also provided valuable and identifying information such as occupations and place of birth.
Information provided on the 1850 U.S. Federal Census
Just ten years earlier, the 1840 enumeration looked dramatically different:
1840 U.S. Federal Census
As Harold lamented, in 1840 we only find the name of the head of household, followed by the number of people in the household who fell within a certain age range. There’s still valuable information here, but clearly not as detailed as later enumerations.
So, the general answer to his question is that he is right, from 1840 on back you typically cannot rely just on census records.
However, it is indeed often possible to reliably take your family tree further back in time.
Genealogical research at this point in history requires deeper cross-referencing of the types of sources that Elissa referred to in the podcast episode. Examples of these sources include wills and probate records, land deeds, homestead records, tax records, marriage records, old newspapers, compiled genealogies and more. They all play a part in piecing together a family tree.
Some of these records are available online. However, in many cases, you will use only the internet to help you determine where the records are held. Then you must access the records in person, by contacting the repository, asking a friend or fellow researcher in the area to copy it for you, or hire a professional genealogist in the area where they are held.
Regarding Harold’s question regarding genealogists who are able to tie their family tree to the Mayflower, this is indeed possible. There is a lot of excellent documentation over the last few centuries on descendants of the Mayflower, so it is sometimes not that difficult to connect up an ancestor in your own tree with the descendant of the Mayflower. This can indeed take your own tree back much further. However, that’s a topic for another article.
A Sweet Tool that Can Help
In addition to discussing the sources and strategies that you can use to avoid being a cookie cutter genealogist, Elissa and I also discuss the Genealogical Proof Standard (also known as the GPS) in Genealogy Gems Podcast episode #232.
The Genealogical Proof Standard was created to help genealogists gain confidence in their research conclusions by providing criteria that can be followed. A genealogical conclusion is considered proved when it meets all five GPS components.
You can learn more about the GPS in episode #20 of my Family History: Genealogy Made Easy podcast.
It’s normal for new genealogists to follow the basic cookie-cutter approach of birth, marriage, death and census records. But these standard sources can only take you so far (as Harold discovered!)
Reaching further back in your family tree by embracing more challenging sources and digging deeper offers a much sweeter reward!