Monday, August 16, 2010

Mentor Monday--Tapping genealogy resources for historical research, Part I

Many of the women we profile in Notable Women are notable but not famous (one might say “notable but not noticed”). This can be a result of the male-orientation of many fields, or of the simple fact that history often overlooks people outside the realms of military and political power. Whatever the reason, it can make finding solid information about their lives difficult to find.

Several times in my research I have found that my genealogy work stands me in good stead. Resources and methods I first discovered in searching for facts about my own ancestors and their lives also turn out to be good sources for information about other people’s relatives. I’ve also found that constructing a family tree for my subject can help me organize the data I have and point out connections I might not have noticed or question marks worth pursuing. (Quirky case in point: Sarah Kemble Knight, one of our Connecticut ladies, was the second wife of Richard Knight. His first wife was Remembrance Grafton – grand-daughter of Amias Thompson, who was one of my subjects in the New Hampshire book.)

Incidentally, many of these sources can be of value not only in searching for information about specific people, but also for researching a particular time and place; although in most cases because the information is being catalogued and preserved by the genealogy industry, you’ll need at least a surname and a date to begin your process.

Like so many other hobbies and passions, genealogy research has been utterly transformed by the internet. Where once you had to go into the cellars of county courthouses in the places your subject lived, and pore over voluminous indices in search of their names, you can now often locate that same county’s records on-line, and in many cases, read scanned copies of the hand-written deeds transferring lands or noting foreclosures. Town histories that were hard-to-find and very expensive have been scanned and indexed and can be read on-line or purchased on $10 cds. Descendants who have boxes of newspaper clippings may be posting on family-tree websites, and may be willing to share their information via email.

The downside to this wealth of information is that one person’s transcription error or misinformed judgment call can be repeated endlessly, and as the information moves further and further from its source, these errors can be difficult to spot. The first of my paternal line’s ancestors to immigrate to the New World, Robert Dunbar, is routinely listed as a son of Ninian Dunbar of Scotland. Ninian did have a son named Robert, but they are not the same person – just someone’s wishful belief that they had found the right ancestor, repeated over and over until it has become “accepted.”

A great place to start your search is the inestimable Cyndi’s List, currently boasting over a quarter million links: . The most comprehensive of the commercial sites is

The best of the internet resources charge for access, and not without reason – scanning old documents is very labor-intensive, indexing them even more so. But lots of material is available at a minimal charge, often through local historical societies or small-town newspapers. In addition, because of the growing interest in genealogy, many public libraries subscribe to the big genealogy and newspaper sites, so you may be able to access materials from the library that you can’t get to from home.

 Because of their religious beliefs, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints maintains an ever-expanding collection of genealogical materials. They have done the lion’s share of the scanning and indexing of old materials, most of which is available to researchers without regard to religion, both on-line and at their regional libraries. (Note that even the Mormons are not immune to the risk of repeating the well-travelled error, however. They confidently report that Robert Dunbar was the son of Ninian.)

Weigh the information you find carefully, and beware that tendency to believe that you’ve found what you hoped to find. Even when the name and date are correct, it doesn’t mean you’ve necessarily found your person! It is more common than you might think for two people of the same age and with the same name to live in the same state. Even professional historians can get tripped up by these doppelgangers. The woman who wrote the History of the Town of New London, Connecticut reported that Sarah Knight had kept a shop in Norwich in 1698. In later correspondence with a researcher preparing a copy of the journal for publication she observed that she had been mistaken, the “widow Knight” who was the shopkeeper was almost certainly NOT Sarah Kemble Knight. But the New London history had been published and is still out there to confuse researchers.

With that caution, here’s a look at what you might find.

Vital records:

State or national databases of birth, death and marriage certificates, social security death records, and church records of baptisms and marriages. These government documents are public record, but most states will not release copies of vital record on living or recently-deceased persons unless the request comes from a relative or other person with a direct interest. The lists, however, are often searchable on the internet or in state offices, and will include the most essential information. Church records, particularly in Europe, often go back much further than civil records and can provide a useful fact-checking resource. Many historians recorded that Amias Thompson’s son John was the first white child born in New Hampshire – but I found his baptismal record in Plymouth, England, four years before the Jonathan left for the New World.


Newspaper archives may yield obituaries and birth and marriage announcements. They also contain articles about elections (whether to Congress or to Grange officer) and announcements of awards and citations. Also in the paper you may find stories of minor catastrophes and criminal proceedings. A contemporary newspaper account may be a more accurate source of the date of a fire or location of a marriage than a later account based on faulty memory. And don’t ignore items that don’t seem to be directly significant for your subject: “Mr. and Mrs. Brown attend uncle’s funeral” may give you Mrs. Brown’s maiden name and sometimes the names of her parents. A tiny note in the San Antonio paper about Clara Driscoll’s arrival in town showed me that it took months for her to bring her mother’s body home from England for burial.
If you have the choice of seeing a whole page of the paper (as shows) rather than just the single article (as you get from, for example, Highbeam ( ), take it. The New York Times archive offers both for some years. Unrelated stories in the same paper as items about your subject will give you a feel for the time and place: your setting. Advertisements are often wonderful peepholes into history.

Next time, we’ll look at some less-obvious sources of information the genealogy folks love.


Diane said...

Unrelated stories in the same paper as items about your subject will give you a feel for the time and place: your setting. Advertisements are often wonderful peepholes into history.

This is my favorite part about research! Thanks for all the info., Sally!

I'm Jet . . . said...

This is a timely post for me. I'm about to embark on my first family tree search -- my grandmother's family from Sweden (inspired by the Swedish flick Girl with the Dragon Tattoo where the people kind of look like me -- cheekbones and all!)

I've never done anything like this before, and am eager to begin the trip.

Thanks for your great article, Sally!


Mur said...

Super, Sally!