My New Year’s Resolutions Need Your Help!!

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Here it is, nearly the middle of January and I’m just now sharing my New Year’s Resolutions. Considering we were hit with one of those weeks. . . complete with a nasty case of food poisoning AND car trouble, I am just grateful to be writing at all.

2016 will be a year of change, it seems. I have alluded to at least one of these changes in a previous post, so I guess it is time to tell you that we will be leaving Salt Lake city soon. . . too soon, if you ask me. We have yet to receive official orders to our next duty station, so I won’t say exactly where we are going; But, I will tell you that it is one of the 13 original colonies!!

Many of my resolutions came to me as I anticipated what a new geographic region will mean to my genealogy education and career. Others are projects I have been meaning to take on for some time. A few of them require some expert advice, because I really don’t know where to begin in order to accomplish them. I would be very grateful for any insight my fellow genealogists can offer! So here they are, in no particular order:

1. Make the Most of My Remaining Time in Salt Lake – It has been a dream to spend so many hours over the last year and half researching at the world famous Family History Library. I am so grateful for all that facility provides AND for their evening and Saturday hours (since I stay home during the day with my son). Yet, it is difficult to believe I will soon have to leave this amazing resource. I still have so much I want to do there. I need to take advantage of every opportunity, even on those cold, dark evenings when I might be tempted to stay home and turn on the TV!

2. Give Back by Becoming Involved in Military Repatriation Cases – Did you know that some genealogists work to find living descendants of killed or MIA veterans whose remains were never identified in order that those individuals’ remains may finally be identified through DNA testing? I first heard of this when listening to a genealogy podcast and have tried to learn more on the topic. There are so many ways we as genealogists can give back, but when I heard about these efforts, I knew this was something of which I wanted to be a part.

Unfortunately, I am having trouble getting started. I joined an organization of volunteer genealogists a while back and offered my services, but I never heard anymore. I made a few inquiries, but still nothing. If you know how I might be able to be a part of these efforts, please contact me!

3. Attach Source Citations to Genealogy Documents – Source citations are not something I generally look forward to writing, and to be honest, I am still not 100% confident in my source-citation-writing-ability. I spend a lot of time pouring over Elizabeth Shown Mills, Evidence Explained. Yet, because I know how important they are and how attaching them to my documents will actually save me time in the future and make me a better genealogist, I think will call 2016 the year of the source citation. I plan to take another class or two on the topic and really buckle down on this project.

4. Continue to Take Formal Genealogy Courses – I don’t know if 2016 will be the year I can really dedicate myself to a concentrated, rigorous class or program, because you know, the whole cross-country-move and mother-of-a-toddler situation, but I would like to take some courses that I can chip away at as I have time. I currently have my eye on few offerings from the National Genealogical Society. I will keep you posted.

5. Become More Skilled at Newspaper Research – I think I am OK at newspaper research. I can find obits and major news stories if I know the dates for which I should be searching. Yet, I feel like I could do a lot more with newspapers if I understood how better to search them, both those online as well as those that might be on microfilm. I am convinced there are a few tricks I need to learn. I am hoping to read a book or take a class on the topic. So, fellow genealogists, if you have any recommendations, I am all ears!!!

6. Learn more about Tax Records and Land Records – Genealogy research at our new geographic location will be very different from anything I’ve done in the past, which I am actually super excited about. It may seem counter-intuitive that a person who is “married to the military” could have a successful genealogy career with so much moving around, but I hold a different perspective. The nuances of each geographic region only help expand my knowledge and expertise. I know that where I am going, tax and land records are going to be essential to understanding the local history and the families who lived there. So I better start studying!

7. Contact Distant Family – Listen, I like people. I enjoy meeting new people and hearing their stories. That said, I am also introvert at heart. I can be shy and I don’t particularly like to talk on the phone. While I enjoy speaking in front of a crowd, I get nervous at the thought of calling someone I’ve never met and asking a favor of them.

As genealogists, we know how amazing these interactions can be if we are just willing to get out of our comfort zone. I have a few people in my family, whom I’ve either never met, or met when I was, you know, three, whom I have been meaning to call. Yet, I keep procrastinating, worried that I might be bothering them. Afterall, not everybody shares my passion for genealogy, and what if I inadvertently step into some sensitive topic and end up offending them? These are all excuses I know. I just need to make the effort.

8. Write more – I would really like to start writing reports, case studies, proof arguments, etc. for my own family. I could use the practice and the process will inevitably help prepare me for my ultimate goal of one day writing a portfolio that will pass the rigorous standards of the Board for Certification of Genealogists. Its time. So 2016 is year!

How about you? What did you resolve for 2016?

15 Ways I Became a Better Genealogist in 2015

15 ways I became photo
Photos from author’s personal files. May not be used without permission.

2015 was quite a year. One for the history books, in my opinion. For one, I will never forget watching history as Thoroughbred racing’s American Pharoah won the first Triple Crown in almost 36 years. Something, as a lifelong horse lover, I had been waiting my whole life to see.

This year also saw the culmination of years of hard work when I finally reached my ultimate running goal of Qualifying for the Boston Marathon.

In 2015, my Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup and my Cubs won their first post-season playoff series at home in Wrigley Field history.

Besides these things, I will always remember 2015 as a banner year for my growth as a genealogist. As I look back on the year, I can pinpoint specific actions and experiences which fostered this growth. I still have a great deal to learn (stay tuned to for an upcoming New Year’s Resolution post), and am uncomfortable with the number of times I use the word “I” in this post. Nevertheless, I hope my experiences may inspire you. So here, in no particular order:

1. I listened to podcasts. You guys, there are so many free genealogy podcasts out there! The best part about education via podcast is that you don’t have to be sitting down to be learning. You can listen to them while you clean the house or when you are in the car or whatever. You can also download the audio to many of the free webinars out there and upload them to your listening device. My favorites include anything by Marian Pierre-Louis, and pretty much any webinar put out by the BCG or the APG. Check them out!

2. I exercised. I know this sounds a little ridiculous, but I sincerely can’t say enough about the value of getting away from the computer screen and getting your heart rate up. We genealogists tend to sit too long, intensely staring at screens and microfilm readers. Exercise helps loosen the tension from sitting and protect our health. For me personally, exercise gives me energy. So when my son goes down for his naps, instead of taking one too, I have the energy to work.

As you probably guessed by my aforementioned reference to the Boston Marathon, I love to run. Running provides a great opportunity to listen to those genealogy podcasts! It also just seems to spur creative thought. When I’m not listening to podcasts, I’m usually working out my genealogical brick walls or finding inspiration for blog posts.

3. I joined genealogical societies. In 2015, I joined the National Genealogical Society and the Chicago Genealogical Society. I can’t tell you how much I have learned from reading their publications, particularly those from NGS.

4. I took online courses. I currently stay home with my 2 year old. Consequently, I learn from home and I (mostly) work from home. Online learning provides classroom quality instruction without requiring me to actually be in a classroom. This year I completed several courses from the NGS and I am currently working my way through John Grenham’s Irish Ancestors course.

5. I read recommended books. There are so many genealogy books out there, sometimes it’s difficult to know which ones will most aid us in our efforts. I found there are a few books out there that come recommended time and again by top genealogists. Those are the books I’ve tried to acquire for my library and in each case, I have not been disappointed.

6. I started Almost Home. Few forms of learning are more effective than “learning by doing.” Client projects have stretched me and have also given me confidence in how much I have learned.

7. I joined the Association of Professional Genealogists. My membership in this organization has given Almost Home great exposure leading to some pretty exciting opportunities I hope to share more about in the future. The association’s email list provides another source of learning and an ever-present network of professionals to whom I can go for advice.

8. I admitted knowledge gaps. When I admit my knowledge gaps, I am more motivated to fill them. A few short months ago, I knew next to nothing about probate records, which I find almost embarrassing now that I know their value. Yet, just this week, I worked out a really difficult client problem relating to probate records, thanks to the steps I took to educate myself. I’m still no legal expert, but it was a proud moment.

9. I spent time significant time researching at the Family History Library. When we moved to Salt Lake, I knew we wouldn’t be here forever. I committed to getting the most out of living here while I could. That means I make at least weekly trips to the FHL, spending a minimum of 2 hours at a time. Even accounting for weeks that I traveled, or couldn’t make it for one reason or another, I spent at least 100 hours researching at this repository this year . . . and there’s still so much more to do there.

You may not have access to this library where you live, but you may live close to a Family History Center. If you aren’t already familiar with their holdings and the FHL’s loan program, I encourage you to check it out.

10. I diversified my repository research. Besides the FHL, I also spent time this year researching at the Chicago History Museum, Chicago’s Newberry Library, Daughters of Utah Pioneers, Utah State Archives, and the Salt Lake City Recorders Office.

11. I interviewed family members. While I certainly interviewed family members in years past, in 2015, I took better care to record or take notes on those interviews.

12. I investigated “old shoeboxes.” This practice led to a number of new clues and helped solve a few mysteries too. Read more here.

13. I learned under some the best at the BCG lecture series. Read more here.

14. I buckled down on source citations. I still have a long way to go in terms of getting accurate source citations attached to all my records, but I am happy to say I am making progress.

15. I learned from more experienced genealogists. I don’t read as many blogs as I would like and I don’t interact with other genealogists as much as I would like, but when I am able to connect with others, whether electronically or in person, I want their advice. I want to know their stories and learn from their experiences. That includes you. In what ways did you become a better genealogist in 2015?

A Historic Home for the Holidays

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As genealogists, we possess an appreciation for the past that not everyone quite shares or understands. Old documents thrill us and stories of people long gone can keep us up at night. Most of us want to know not just that names of the individuals who preceded us, but what life was like for them. We find ourselves noticing and appreciating the things around us that are in any way historic, vintage or just plain old.

It is little wonder then that many genealogists find themselves using their research skills to learn more about historic buildings in their communities. In fact, some professional genealogists offer house history research alongside genealogy research as a business service.

Not long ago, our family moved to Salt Lake City. You can imagine how thrilled I was when, for the first time in my life, I was able to live in a historic home. Of course, the term “historic” is somewhat relative. By some standards, my house is not old at all. But for me, a 1944 bungalow is something special. I couldn’t help but think when I initially toured the house, that the first family who lived here likely celebrated VE Day and VJ Day within these walls. I thought it fitting to hang my framed copy of this famous photo on one of my walls.

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I know little about the building trade other than what I’ve seen on This Old House, but even I can tell you — they don’t make houses the way they used to. This house, with its red brick exterior and plaster walls is solid. It seems like it was built to withstand the test of time.

Sure, by 21st century, first-world American standards, the house may not seem like much: It is far from energy efficient, with a minuscule kitchen, a master bedroom that won’t comfortably fit a queen bed and two nightstands, marred original wood floors, tiny closets and a host of other inconveniences. Nevertheless, I feel that the home more than makes up for any these things with that unmistakable quality people often refer to as charm. If nothing else, it reminds me that the average middle class American family got by with a lot less just a few generations ago.

I am not a house historian, but I would like to be one day. As I have had time, I have dabbled in the genre by trying to find out more about this house. Untitled_Panorama1

First, I searched for my home’s tax assessment cards by contacting the Salt Lake County Archives. The tax assessment cards describe the house in detail, give its value at various times, provide the names of the some of the owners and describe improvements on the house. Best, of all, the same archives which held the tax assessment cards also held this priceless 1944 photo of the home.

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Second, combined with the names on the tax assessment cards along with research in city directories, I also learned the names and occupations of many of the home’s previous owners.

My next stop will be to visit the Recorder’s office to hopefully gain a fuller picture of the home’s owners over the years. Perhaps I will decide to follow some of these families to the present day to see if that might lead me to more information or photos.

As with any subject I want to learn more about, I have my eye on some books on the topic as well: Sally Light’s, House Histories: A Guide to Tracing the Genealogy of Your Home and Betsy J. Greene’s Discovering the History of Your House and Your Neighborhood. <sigh> I hope I will get to them before too long.

This Christmas will be bittersweet for us as we will be celebrating the Holidays for the last time in this home. I know it may seem strange, . . we’ve only been here a short time and as renters, the place doesn’t even belong to us. That’s the way it is when you move with the military. You leave little pieces of your heart around the world. This year I can’t help but think of all the Christmas trees that have likely been displayed in the bay window over the years. I’m glad ours will be among them.

Does House History interest you? The places and process to find information about the history of your home or a home in your community will likely differ from city to city. However, if this topic at all interests you, it is worth looking into. Here are some links I used to get me started. I hope they will help you as well:

http://www.cyndislist.com/houses/general/

http://www.yellowkeyrealty.com/resources/a-guide-to-finding-the-history-of-your-home.aspx

http://www.thisoldhouse.com/toh/article/0,,1560818,00.html

This Genealogist’s Holiday Wish List

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1. Mastering Genealogical Proof by Thomas W. Jones – The genealogy community makes it pretty clear that this book is a must-have for any genealogist committed to accurate and ethical genealogy research. I feel that my library, as well as my genealogical education, is really not complete without it. I understand that the book provides valuable, clear instruction on how to apply the Genealogical Proof Standard. Perhaps the best part, the reader can evaluate his or her understanding of each chapter through corresponding workbook exercises. For these reasons, Mastering Genealogical Proof is at the top of my Holiday Wish List.

2. Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy – The Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy, held 11-15 January, is an intensive, week-long genealogy education opportunity in Salt Lake City where students learn under some of the foremost genealogists in the field. The institute offers 13 different courses or tracks, from which the student chooses one. Many of the courses are already sold out, but some still have availability.

To be honest, it will be a Christmas miracle if I can attend SLIG this year. The timing of it simply seems impossible for our family right now. This is a shame because we will be changing duty stations soon, and this may be my last opportunity to go. Nevertheless, I take comfort in the fact that there are many people (maybe even some of your reading this) who likewise have family and work responsibilities which prevent them from taking advantage of these types of learning opportunities. I am grateful that there are still many, many other ways for us genealogists to educate ourselves if we are committed to learning. Plus, there’s always the future. Ya never know.

3. Urban Green: Nature, Recreation and the Working Class in Industrial Chicago by Colin Fisher – My interest in this topic began when I decided to investigate the history behind an old photo of my great-grandmother in a baseball uniform.

Well, that statement isn’t completely true. A few years back I earned my Master’s Degree in Recreation, Sport and Tourism from the University of Illinois. While I appreciated almost all my coursework in the program, I most enjoyed the unit on the social history of leisure. So that’s likely where the spark initially ignited.

Anyhow, this book caught my attention as I was learning about recreation in industrial Chicago, thanks to the aforementioned photo of my great-grandmother. It might sound strange, but I found Gem’s 1997 Windy City Wars so fascinating I decided to put this recently published book on my wish list.

4. Chicago and Cook County: A Guide to Research by Loretta Dennis Scucz – This book maybe be a little older, but it is still considered one of the best resources for Chicago Genealogy. Since my family tree is so heavily comprised of Chicagoans, I think I definitely need it on my bookshelf.

5. Tracing your Irish Ancestors by John Grenham – Last St. Patrick’s Day, I took advantage of a special rate on John Grenham’s online Irish Ancestors course, which I found to be incredibly detailed and informative (I’m actually still working my way through it). I already knew when I began the course that Irish research can be a bit tricky, and the course only reiterated that truth to me. There are so many nuances to Irish research that no genealogist could begin to remember them all. This book is the definitive reference to Irish research and I would very much like to have it in my library.

6. A to Zax: A Comprehensive Dictionary for Historians and Genealogists by Barbara Jean Evans – I think the title says it all. Which of us couldn’t benefit from this book, right? The documents we come across in our research must be understood within their historical context, or we will fail as genealogists. A to Zax seems like an essential reference work for this genealogist.

 

What about you? Do you have any genealogy related items you are hoping for this year?

The number one thing you can do you jumpstart your genealogy research

Has your genealogy research stagnated? Do you find yourself aimlessly spinning your wheels online, running the same searches over and over? Have you given up on that brick wall problem?

Stop what your doing. . . right now.

It’s time to perform a different kind of search – a search for those dusty boxes filled with old pictures and memorabilia.

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What I’ve been up to this week

Even though it is never a bad idea to run previously performed searches periodically in case new material has become digitized or brought to light, the truth is that the piece of evidence or motivation for which you may be looking could be hiding in plain sight, maybe in your very own home or that of a close relative.

This week I am “home” (in one sense of the definition. Read more here) visiting family. During my son’s naps and after his bed time, I have been able to sneak in a few precious hours of “old shoebox investigating,” scanning everything from elementary school diplomas to Italian letters written on “Vini Scardina” stationary (which finally prove that members of my great-grandfather’s family were in the wine producing business!!!).

The genealogical value of this simple act has been immeasurable.

I have been lucky enough to go through these old boxes with individuals “in the know” who have been able to name and tell stories about the people featured in the pictures and documents. I take notes and date them, recording those family stories and their origins for future generations. After I learn the faces of those I never met, I begin to recognize them in subsequent pictures, and I find myself wanting to know more about them.

Even more important in terms of solving those genealogical brick walls, this process has given me dozens of clues to investigate.

I have written before about the importance of the FAN club in genealogical research (FAN stands for Friends, Associates and Neighbors or Family, Associates and Neighbors) and how these people can often lead us to solve those brick wall mysteries. Well, I can think of no better way to learn who exactly is a member of your ancestors’ FAN club than to look through those dusty old boxes in Grandma’s attic. You see, sometimes the key to solving our genealogical mysteries comes not from the obvious direct evidence sources (like vital records), but from a careful attention to the little details.

Just this week, I have found two funeral programs which list that names and addresses for the individuals who attended my Great-Great Grandmother’s and my Great Uncle’s funerals. I even know who sent flowers. Through these same funeral programs, I finally learned (thanks to her recognizable handwriting) exactly who wrote down all those names in the family Bible. This is just one example out of the dozens of genealogical clues I uncovered over the past few days.

Now, you may be reading this thinking, “I’ve already done that – I’ve gone through Grandma’s boxes, so this advice doesn’t really help me.”

Even so, it might be time to open up those boxes again. This time, instead of sharing clues to help you in your search, maybe the boxes will inspire your to find family members who have their own dusty shoeboxes in the back of the closet just waiting for the family genealogist to investigate. That person might know something you don’t, and their box might contain its own unique treasures. Given the genealogical value common to these types of collections, I think it is well worth a phone call.

7 Reasons to LOVE Italian Records

For a long time, I regret to say, I avoided Italian records in my genealogy research. This, even though I proudly claim 50% Italian heritage and my husband, 100%. I had successfully found passenger records for my great-grandparents and his, naming their towns of origin, but I stopped there. You see, I made some pretty big assumptions about Italian records, which to my pleasant surprise, turned out to be absolutely false.

Giachino Scialabba atto di nascita
Example of Italian birth records in “template” form

First, I assumed that even if I could find Italian records pertaining to my ancestors, I wouldn’t be able to understand them. At the time, I didn’t speak Italian. However, when I finally started looking at Italian records, I realized that they generally follow a template, sort of like a form letter, where the recorder would “fill in the blanks” so to speak. So once you understand what the template says (which you can learn through any good Italian genealogy book, the FamilySearch Wiki or even Google Translate), you really only need to be familiar with a few words and symbols . . . and maybe a few nuances of Italian script. Ironically, not too long after I began delving into Italian records, we received orders to Vicenza. I gained a much firmer grasp of the language and furthered my Italian genealogical education while living there for three years.

Besides doubting my ability to understand the records, I also doubted the records themselves. I assumed Italian records would be, well, a mess. Listen, I love Italy. Like I seriously LOVE it. But, as Rick Steve’s describes it, it can sometimes feel a little “intense” to outsiders (especially in the South, where all my ancestors originated)[1]: Helmet-less people on scooters weaving in and out of traffic, roadways that seem to be patterned after a bowl of spaghetti, less than dependable train schedules and a reputation for government corruption and bloated bureaucracy. I could attest to some of these things as a former tourist, so I assumed that Italian records could only be equally “chaotic.” Well, nothing could be further from the truth. As it turns out, Italian records are, generally speaking, WAY clearer than American records. Now, I both love the Italian culture for its chaotic vivacity and Italian records for their organization and clarity.

Here are just a few things I love about Italian Records:

1. They go back really far. . . I mean really, really far!

Just this week, I conducted some microfilm searches for a client in Italy (hence, the inspiration for this post). I was looking at Tuscan records that dated back to 1750! How cool is it that I get to investigate something THAT old from a part of the world  so dear to my heart? But you know what? In terms of Italian records, 1750 that isn’t that old. Trafford R. Cole wrote in his book, Italian Genealogical Records, “Each town in Italy has civil records dating back to at least 1870, some dating back to 1809. The Catholic parishes situated in every village and town have records from much earlier periods. Most parishes have records dating back to 1595 or at least to the beginning of the parish. . . . Other sources exist also: university records can date back to the 1200s. . . .” [2] See what I mean?

2. Civil records were standardized in the Napoleonic Era.

With Napoleon’s unification of Italy in the early 1800s the government hierarchy became organized into local, provincial and regional units. The local unit shouldered the responsibility of recording vital statistics. Napoleon specifically mandated exactly what information should be recorded and how. He even supplied local governments with standardized books (what I referred to earlier as a “template”) to aid in the record keeping. Even after Napoleon’s defeat, many local municipalities continued to follow the method he implemented [3].

alfonso alfano death record (1)

3. Italian records share a lot of detail.

For example, the death record above names the age, occupation, birthplace, town of residence and address of the deceased. It names his parents (indicating his mother is deceased), his father’s occupation and residence, and his wife’s name. It also gives the informants’ names and occupations. With details like these, you can take your family tree back generations in no time (of course, always do a reasonably exhaustive before taking any record at face value).

4. Italian women don’t change their surname.

Any genealogist who has ever lost track of a female ancestor thanks to an unknown marriage/name change knows what a big deal this is. If you haven’t, I am telling you, genealogy is SO much easier when married women keep their maiden name.

5. The people in Italian Records tended to stay put for generations.

One thing many Americans (myself included before I moved to Italy) do not understand about Italy is that the country is very regionally oriented. Most Italians consider themselves of their region before they consider themselves Italian. The food, dialect and culture varies greatly from region to region. This is in part thanks to the geography and topography of Italy which lends itself to regional autonomy. Along with the majority population’s dependence on agricultural livelihood, this means that many families lived on the same plot of land, or at least in the same general area, for generations and generations [4] .

Example of an Italian records set's corresponding index
Example of an Italian records set’s corresponding index

6. Many Italian Records are indexed, by the same people who kept them.

It is easy to think of record indexing as a modern-day product of Ancestry or FamilySearch which allows me to search for my ancestor by name in a database. Well, Italian records often have very clear, easy to follow indexes within the records themselves. So even if Ancestry or FamilySearch hasn’t gotten around to indexing the record set you are looking through, you don’t have to look at each record individually. You can start by consulting the index (usually at the very beginning or end of the record set), saving tons of time and energy.

7. Dates are often written out in word form.

Though it may not seem like a big deal, dates written in word form save a lot of confusion and second-guessing. There is no wondering if that 6 was actually a 5 or forgetting that in Europe the numeric date comes before the month, etc.

So, do you have Italian ancestry? If yes, don’t be afraid of Italian records! Find the town from which your ancestor originated and begin searching. FamilySearch has many Italian records available online and many more available on microfilm.
If you are unsure of the exact locale your ancestor called home, there are many reliable ways to find out more. I am tempted to get into some of those methods now, but I think I will save them for another post.

Thanks for reading!

[1] “Naples and Pompeii,” Rick Steves Europe Website, Video Script, bullet 3, (RickSteves.com : Accessed 5 Nov 2015).

[2] Trafford R. Cole, Italian Genealogical Records: How to Use Italian Civil, Ecclesiastical & Other Records in Family History Research (Salt Lake City, Utah: Ancestry, 1995), 7-8.

[3] Lynn Nelson, A Genealogist’s Guide to Discovering Your Italian Ancestors: How to Find and Record Your Unique Heritage (Blue Ash, Ohio: F W Media, 1997), 11

[4] Cole, Italian Genealogical Records, 6.

Researching Urban-Dwelling Ancestors: Trick or Treat?

Happy (almost) Halloween, Everyone! Costume making, party planning, pumpkin carving – it has been a busy few weeks around here! I love sharing these traditions with my family and can’t help but think of how Halloween traditions have simultaneously evolved and endured over generations.

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photo from personal files of author. May not be used with out permission.

How priceless is this Halloween photo from one of our family albums?! It also holds a great deal genealogical of value (FAN Club, house number and more!) too.

But today, I want to write about a topic that has been on my mind a lot lately. Ironically, it was discussed on the FamilySearch Blog just yesterday. It is a truth I am learning, so I do not consider myself an expert, but here it is: Genealogy research in urban environments looks a lot different from genealogy research in small town or rural America. As mentioned in previous posts, I am currently working my way through Val Greenwood’s book, The Researcher’s Guide to American Genealogy and I recently attended the BCG Lecture Series for the Family History Library. These educational experiences only reiterated to me this contrast between urban and rural genealogy. In fact, I buttonholed Cook County research expert, Jeanne Larzalere Bloom after the Conference to ask her about this very topic.

Sometimes, as I research my family, I feel lucky to have so many ancestors in Chicago. Other times, I find the challenges of research in a large city overwhelming. So trick or treat, here are some the pros and cons of having ancestors in urban environments:

Challenges (i.e. “tricks”)

1. Common Names

Is it just me, or does anyone else feel a little jealous when reading a case study in which the researcher uses negative research to correctly identify one individual out of maybe five others with the same name? Juxtapose this with urban research where scores of people may share a common name. For example, I have been researching one of my earliest known Irish immigrant ancestors for some time now. He is the key to a great deal of information on the family tree and the origin of a number of genealogical mysteries as well. His name? Michael Kelly. His occupation? Laborer. How on earth do I tell my Michael Kelly apart from the dozens of others with the same name living in Chicago at the same time? Though not long ago I considered this to be too daunting a task to even attempt, I have made good progress in recent months. I’m learning it takes work, but it doesn’t have to be impossible.

2. Frequent moves

In the past as well as today, people move into and out of cities frequently. Even individuals who lived in a city for all or most of their life often changed addresses multiple times [1]. This is in sharp contrast to families in rural areas which often lived on the same plot of land for generations. The example of my ancestor holds true here as well. Except for several years in the 1910s where my Michael Kelly stayed at one address, the guy moved constantly. This has been one of my biggest challenges to my proving I am following the correct person.

3. Inconsistent Spellings

If you are researching in a large city, chances are you have non-English speaking, immigrant and/or illiterate ancestors in your family line. As a result, your ancestor’s name may be grossly misspelled in the records documented by those with little familiarity with your ancestor’s foreign language, accent or traditional name-spelling [2]. Furthermore, your ancestor may have gone by a number of different names in an attempt to assimilate into American culture. This certainly necessitates a measure of creativity on the researcher’s part when using the old search box feature.

4. Lack of Property Records

Genealogists in rural communities appear to rely heavily on land records. Yet, for those of us searching our urban dwelling ancestors, we often find they owned no property [3]. The Rent or Own column on census records can provide a clue as to whether or not this is the case. Even if you think your ancestor owned property, you may have quite the task ahead of you. I can’t speak for other large cities, but I understand that when it comes to Chicago, the process involved in finding land and property records can be something of a nightmare [4] – not that that should keep us from trying. Just know what you might be in for.

5. Lack of Probate Records

A lack of property often translates to a lack of probate records, as well [5]. Many genealogists consider probate records to be among the most valuable record sets available thanks to their ability to define relationships. Unfortunately, this is one valuable source we may at times have to do without when researching in cities.

Despite these challenges, urban genealogy research is not a completely uphill battle. Here are some of the perks of having city-dwelling ancestors.

Benefits (i.e. “treats”)

1. City Directories

“In big cities . . . it is much more likely that urban ancestors appeared in city directories and that those directories still exist” wrote Duncan Kuehn on the FamilySearch Blog [6]. Even when you have an ancestor with a common name, city directories can be key to identifying that ancestor. There is a fantastic article on how to use city directories on the BCG Website. By knowing how to use them, you can often identify relationships, find employment records, identifying neighbors, understand address changes, and identify approximate dates of death [7].

2. Ethnic Neighborhoods and Churches

Though the city which your ancestor called home may have held a number of individuals with the same name, your ancestor’s immediate community may have held far fewer of them than you might think. Going back to my Michael Kelly example, I found that this ancestor of mine moved frequently, yes; But he always moved within a very small geographic region of what today is considered the near North Side/Magnificent Mile neighborhood, near Holy Name Cathedral where records show he attended church. Therefore, I can conclude that it is unlikely the person I find with the same name in the South Side Bridgeport neighborhood who attended Old St. Pat’s is the same person. The fact is, most large cities are just groups of smaller neighborhoods. So, if we learn the neighborhood, we will likely learn more about our ancestor.

Speaking of church records, urban church records are much more likely to have been preserved than rural church records [8], and many of them are digitized online. I personally have had good luck searching the Chicago Catholic Church records online at FamilySearch.

3. Newspapers – The same holds true for newspapers. It seems to me that large city newspapers are much more likely to be digitized and conveniently searchable than rural newspapers with small readership numbers. Even if you think your ancestor wouldn’t have been noteworthy enough to be mentioned in a newspaper article, you may find record of them in the classified ads [9].

4. Immigration and Naturalization records

If you have comparatively recent immigrant ancestors (generally speaking, post-1900 records contain more information than older documents) in your family line (which again, is fairly likely if you are searching in a large city), immigration and naturalization records can provide invaluable genealogical information such as town of origin, names of closest living relatives and more.

5. Preponderance of Documents

Kuehn again summed things up well when he wrote, “Big cities generate more documents and records than rural areas. They were often the first to institute death and burial records to deal with the increased health hazards that exist in cities due to pollution and overcrowding [10].”

6. Organized Cemetery Records

Generally speaking, city cemetery records are more organized and better preserved than rural cemetery records [11].

7. Genealogy Research Guides

You may not find a published book or reputable website on genealogy research for a small county America, but you are likely to find excellent city-specific research guides to America’s cities. I’ve got Loretto Dennis Szucs book, Chicago and Cook County: A Guide to Research on my current wishlist and I wrote about some of my old Chicago genealogy standbys here.

8. Employment Records

A number of individuals in my family tree worked for the Chicago Police Department and for the Chicago Surface Lines. Both of these agencies have surviving original records, as well as numerous related secondary sources just waiting to be investigated. The same is true for other large city agencies and corporations as well [12]. You may be surprised what employment records you find surviving in America’s cities.

So, there you have it. Have you noticed any other differences between research in large cities versus small towns or rural areas? Do you prefer one over the other? Do you know of any good resources on genealogy research in large cities or have any tips you would like to share?! Leave a comment or shoot me an email! I would love to hear from you!

[1] Duncan Kuehn, “Researching Your Ancestors from Large Cities,” FamilySearch Blog, 26 Oct 2015 (https://familysearch.org/blog/en/researching-ancestors-large-cities/ : Accessed 27 Oct 2015).

[2] Ibid.,

[3] Ibid.,

[4] “Land and Property,” Cook County Illinois Genealogy, FamilySearch Wiki, no date (https://familysearch.org/learn/wiki/en/Cook_County,_Illinois_Genealogy#Land_and_Property : accessed 27 Oct 2015)

[5]Val D. Greenwood, The Researcher’s Guide to American Genealogy, 3d ed. (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Col, 2000), 310-311.

[6] Kuehn, “Researching Your Ancestors from Large Cities.”

[7] Kathleen W. Hinckley, “Analyzing City Directories,” Online Article citing OnBoard 2 (May 1996): 16, (http://www.bcgcertification.org/skillbuilders/skbld965.html : Accessed 27 Oct 2015).

[8] Kuehn, “Researching Your Ancestors from Large Cities.”

[9] Ibid.,

[10] Ibid.,

[11] Ibid.,

[12] Ibid.,