Month: November 2010

Ancestors and Family Trees, Part Three: Clearing the path

The Johnstown Incline. (A little too steep for me!)

NOTE: Click here for Part One or Part Two of this series.

Let’s face it: unless you are a professional genealogist – or a librarian – the┬ámethods and resources used to research your family tree will be unfamiliar to you. There’s a lot to learn and a lot to understand.

And no matter how effective your searching is, part of it is luck of the draw. How many other researchers have cleared the path for you? If someone else has researched your tree, or has worked to document and archive information in your area, you’re far more likely to succeed in your searching.

And one of the reasons I wanted to write this series of posts in my blog is to sing the high praises of the people who cleared the path for me.

I live in Chicago now, but I was born and raised just outside of Pittsburgh. And both of my parents were born and raised near Johnstown, Pennsylvania. You know – mountains, railroads…..the setting for All The Right Moves and Slap Shot, and oh yeah….major floods every 60 years or so?

Johnstown may not be the biggest city in the country, but aside from its rich history and its beautiful mountains, it also can boast one of the best organized, best documented mother lodes of genealogical resources. In the entire country, folks.

I’ve looked at other cities and done research for ancestors or relatives in almost every area of the country, and the Cambria County genealogical project puts most others to shame. I have yet to find a resources with as much depth and detail as this one. (And lucky for me, at least three-fourths of my tree is in Cambria County!)

There are so many people who make great contributions to the project (and who have helped me personally) that I couldn’t name them all. But a big hats off must go to Lynne Canterbury and Diann Olsen, who are leaders of the efforts in Cambria County.

THEY WANT YOU: If you are interested in genealogy, it’s really important to get involved not just in your own research but to help the genealogy project in your area.

I know the people I’ve mentioned above appreciate the praise, but more than that, they need help. If there’s a genealogical group doing this kind of research in your area, I can guarantee they are an all volunteer enterprise. They can use a set of eyes or hands to help.

What would you do? You might be entering names and data into a spreadsheet. You may be asked to read a few issues of an old newspaper and document any names and events of local citizens that appear in print. Or if you’ve a wiz at HTML, you may be asked to help build a Web page.

I’d like to especially encourage any younger armchair genealogists to get involved. Many groups have a limited number of volunteers that are elderly, and in order to keep these projects alive and viable (with new ideas, new technology and new energy), people must continue to get involved.

Next: The final part of this series, with some suggestions from my friends at the CamGenPA project.

Ancestors and Family Trees, Part Two: Research and resources

If you’re just wading into the waters of family tree research, there are a lot of resources available – in addition to the ubiquitous, which I discussed in the last post, there’s a lot of other places to look for information and a lot of other ways to organize it.

Here’s a list of some of those resources.

The US Census

Pros: The most complete resource and a must have for any genealogist. You may be able to access this via your local library without having a membership to a genealogy Web site.

Cons: The Census was conducted by people, so there’s a certain factor of human error. Misspellings and incorrect information can make your ancestor harder to find. And the entire 1890 census (save a few thousand files) was burned in a fire, which can create an information gap for ancestors who were born during that time.

Family Search

Pros: A free site that was primarily compiled as a project of the Church of Latter Day Saints (Mormons). An information resource for many other genealogy Web sites. (Ever notice they’re all based in Utah?) Offers a number of free resources, including some video classes on how to search. Did I mention it was F-R-Double E free?

Cons: Records can be incomplete or challenging to read; the originals are seldom displayed.

GED-COM genealogy files

Pros: A great way to organize and share information. Gedcom files can be the basis for infomation that makes its way to Family Search or Provides a structure for information and a repository.

Cons: Only as good as the information entered into it. If you’re not a technically savvy person or code-friendly, it might be a nightmare to learn. Sites like mimic many parts of a gedcom in a more user-friendly format.


Pros: It sounds amazingly simple, but seriously? Put your ancestors’ first, middle and last name into Google Search (and maybe the city, county and/or state) and you’d be amazed at what pops up. I’ve found a surprising amount of information, either because my ancestors’ name popped up in scanned documents or because someone else had already done the research and posted it online.

Cons: May not work if you have an incredibly common name – or if, like my ancestors, your ancestors decided to give the same name to a dozen or so members of your extended family.

Newspapers and magazines

Pros: A fantastic resources, particularly for newspapers printed between about 1850 and 1980, when most areas had at least one daily newspaper (if not more) and focused more on local content. Weekly papers can also be great – I’ve posted before about how the weekly social round-up was like the predecessor of the Facebook status update. A wealth of information, including obituaries, wedding announcements, and news articles. One of the best things about

Cons: Can be difficult to search. Most older papers are on microfilm, and if you don’t have an exact date or a specific person you’re looking for, the time investment can be serious. Libraries and tend not to have the complete archives of most papers.

State Archives

Pros: You may be able to get marriage records and death certificates from your state’s vital records department or from state archives.

Cons: You can rarely get birth certificates (for privacy/fraud reasons) and you usually must establish a direct lineage for the other information, which means that you can’t use this resources for more extended members of the family.

Social Security Death Index

Pros: A great way to establish when an ancestor or relative passed away.

Cons: But only if they’ve died since 1973. ┬áLimited files are available before 1973.

Church records

Pros: Can provide some of the most detailed records about your ancestors, including crucial pieces that may not be anywhere else about the joys and sorrows of any family (birth, death, marriage).

Cons: A true wild card; depends on the stance your church takes on the privacy of these records. Can get potentially complicated if records were “fudged” to hide an illegitimate child or divorce.

Military records

Pros: A detailed resource for information about ancestors who served in the armed forces. Can provide vivid details about your ancestors’ experience during their service, or explain how they died in battle.

Cons: Perhaps unsurprisingly, there can be a lot of red tape to cut through to find this information. What you’re asked to verify in order to get the information….is often the same piece of information you’re seeking. As with the Census, some files have been lost to fire.

Other resources:

  • There are a number of sites that are message-board based which can be great spots to exchange information.,, and Cousin Connect are but a few.
  • Aside from newspapers and magazines, libraries have many other resources. To name just a few: phone directories, local yearbooks, maps, and minutes of city meetings.
  • It may not be the first place anyone wants to look, but court files and prison records can also tell a story (a true story, though perhaps a troubling one) of ancestors on the wrong side of the law.
  • And sometimes the simplest place to start is to talk to older family members. They might be able to give you details – family photos, family Bible pages, documents and papers – that no public resources would ever have.

These are just a few places to look.

Kimberly Powell has written two great guides to genealogy research that are especially useful for beginners: The Everything Guide to Online Genealogy and The Everything Family Tree Book. If you decide to wade deeper into the genealogy research waters, these are great places to start (and at $15 a book, a pretty good deal).

What resources have you found useful?