August 25, 2016

Celebrating Freedom and Records Access: 50 Years of FOIA and Genealogy

FOIA turns 50 FOIA and genealogy Happy July 4th–and Happy 50th to the Freedom of Information Act! Read more about the FOIA and genealogy records we can access because of it.

Today we in the United States celebrate our Independence Day with grateful hearts and parades. Well, genealogists with U.S. ancestors have an extra reason for fireworks: today marks 50 years since Congresss signed the Freedom of Information Act into law, and the U.S. became one of the first nations to open its records to the public.

The Freedom of Information Act

The FOIA opens certain kinds of information about the federal government and certain information created by the federal government. It doesn’t apply to everything, including documents that relate to national security, privacy and trade secrets. The FOIA also only applies to documents created by the federal government, not state or local governments.

Since it was passed, the FOIA has continued to be expanded and amended. Over the years, the numbers of FOIA document requests has skyrocketed, too. In the first five years after the FOIA passed, it only resulted in about 500 total requests for information–that’s an average of just 100 per year. Last year alone, there were more than 700,000 requests!

The FOIA and Genealogy

So, of course we have to ask the question: how well do FOIA and genealogy go together? As it turns out, quite well. My favorite FOIA request is for an ancestor’s Social Security application (the SS-5 form). This is the form that generated the assignment of a relative’s Social Security number and was the first step to receiving any Social Security benefits. It’s what the very limited information on the Social Security Death Index comes from, as well as the much-richer (but not comprehensively available) Social Security Applications and Claims database at Ancestry.com. That was released last year and caused a LOT of us to do a serious genealogy happy dance.

But if you want to see everything in that SS-5 application, you should order an image copy of the original (you can now also order a computerized abstract of it, which is cheaper but might not get everything right). Here’s what an SS-5 application looks like:

Osby Johnson SS5 FOIA and genealogy

This one confirms the names of an African-American man’s parents–parents who survived slavery and left few other records of their existence. This man was part of the first generation in his family to legally learn to read and write. His signature is on the record.

You can also access other key 20th-century genealogy records that haven’t made it online yet–and in some cases, haven’t even been sent to the National Archives yet.

These include the following (with links to where to learn more):

There is some fine print on some of these records request procedures, so read carefully what records are there, what you’re allowed to order and how to request it. Happy Independence Day–and Happy FOIA anniversary!

More FOIA and Genealogy Gems

Social Security Death Index SSDI FOIA and genealogy Try This Now! U.S. Social Security Applications and Claims Index

Search the SSDI for Your Family History

Genealogy Gems Podcast episode 21 about military record requests through FOIA

Discover Your House History: “If These Walls Could Speak”

house historyA “house history” can tell you more about the house you live in–or your ancestor’s home. Here’s how.

Are you curious about the history of the house you live in, or would you like to trace the history of a family property? The online article “How to Research Your Home’s Past” by Charity Vogel has some great ideas. It’s not written for family historians, but I like some of the ideas it suggests:

1. Pull a full history of home ownership off your deed. (Historical deeds may not have these. But each deed does represent a link in the chain of property ownership: you should be able to move forward and backward in time in deed records until you’ve listed all owners.)

2. Use census records to learn more about other folks who lived in your home. Remember you’ll be able to see how many people lived there, and, for some census years, whether they owned or rented.

3. Watch for unusual patterns of ownership. For example, a deed showed sisters co-owning a home in the 1930s. Additional research showed that the sisters were nurses and ran the house as a community hospital. How cool is that to know about a house?

4. If it was a grand or unusual home, see whether the newspapers covered its construction. The author of the article found an 1898 article that detailed the entire five-month building process of her house!

Last year I shared an applicable research strategy in my blog post A Shocking Family Secret, and 3 Powerful Newspaper Research Tips about researching our ancestors and where they lived. By searching on their home address, and not including their name,  you can uncover “a kind of house history set of search results, revealing who lived there before, descriptions of the home and its contents and who moved in after your ancestors left. In my case, I located an article about the Cooke home (by the address) being up for sale several years before they owned it. That article included a fairly detailed description of the property. The final article found in the British newspapers was also found only by address (as the Cooke name wasn’t mentioned) and it detailed the contents of their household up for sale. The auction was held in preparation for their move to Canada.” (Click here to learn more about finding your family history in newspapers.)

While looking for more on this topic, I came across a great newspaper article about three researchers who specialize in house histories. They said that in addition to the personal satisfaction of knowing about a family home, “A bit of history and story makes it much easier to sell: it attracts a certain buyer.”

Here are a few more helpful resources, if you’d like to research your house history:

google earth for genealogy landmark findMore House History Gems: Researching a Family Residence

Ancestral Landmark Discovery with Google Earth

How to Find a Family Address: 4 Steps to Using Google Earth for Genealogy

Was This My Ancestor’s Neighborhood?

YouTube for Family History: Documentaries You’ll Love

family history documentaryAre you using YouTube for family history to watch documentaries about your ancestors’ lives and times? It’s instant family history movie time. Just add popcorn!

After learning last year that my great-grandfather survived the horrific Johnstown flood of 1889, I wanted to learn all I could about it. The flood claimed the lives of thousands of people within hours. It was considered the worst man-made disaster to date in the U.S.

My first stop was YouTube. In her book, The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox, Lisa taught me to use YouTube to find historical footage that might include my ancestors (click here to watch my first amazing find). So why not look for a documentary there?

As it turns out, leading biographer David McCullough narrated an award-winning documentary on the Johnstown flood. It’s an older film, based on his book The Johnstown Flood (which I also read). And yes, it’s on YouTube. I watched the whole thing.

True, I didn’t find my 16-year old great-grandfather’s name or face popping up on the screen. But I learned more than words could ever convey–and more than words ever DID convey in my family. Apparently, my relatives who survived it would never talk about the flood. Now I know why.

You can find free documentaries on YouTube for all kinds of family history-related topics:

Looking for something different? Enter search terms in your YouTube browser like “documentary” and the name of a place, ethnic group or immigrant group.

Of course, YouTube isn’t the only place to find documentaries. The ones below are made by nonprofit organizations like public television stations. Click to order them or ask your local library if they can order them through inter-library loan.

More YouTube for Family History Gems

website in screenMy Most Amazing Family History Find Ever–and It’s On YouTube (No Kidding!)

Find Your Family History in the 1950s (Historical Film Footage Tips)

6 Tips for Using YouTube for Family History

 

Do You Need these WWII Documents at The National Archives [UK]?

Recently I heard about a slew of WWII documents at The National Archives [U.K.], some newly available online. Look closely at the descriptions: they have holdings of records of non-British forces, too!

Battle of Britain WWII documents at National Archives UK

Battle of Britain air observer. Wikipedia Commons image. Click to view.

Recently The National Archives [UK] promoted some of the WWII documents in its vaults, in commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain. Below are resources and collections they’ve highlighted.

The National Archives’ guide to researching WWII. This is an overview to researching British government and military records of WWII.

Guide to Royal Air Force Service Records. Use this overview to see what records are available at The National Archives, and learn about related records that have been digitized and indexed at Findmypast.

Royal Air Force combat reports. These are “official reports which pilots or air gunners filed after they had encountered enemy aircraft on operational flights,” says a description on the site. “The reports cover action seen by the squadrons, wings and groups serving with Fighter Command, Bomber Command, Coastal Command and the Fleet Air Arm. Now held at The National Archives in series AIR 50, they include Commonwealth, United States Army Air Force and Allied units based in the United Kingdom during the Second World War.”

Royal Air Force operations record books for squadrons. “Most of them date from the Second World War but there are some from the 1920s and 1930s and a few from the First World War,” says the site. “The ORBs, in series AIR 27, were created to provide a complete record of a unit from the time of its formation. Each book includes an accurate record of operations carried out by the unit. This online collection also includes some operations record books for dominion and Allied Air Force squadrons under British Command.” Part of the series is viewable online.

More Exciting WWII Resources from Genealogy Gems:

10 Maps for Family History at David Rumsey Map Collection

The Ghost Army of WWII Author Interview in the free Genealogy Gems podcast episode 182

The Bombing of London in WWII: Interactive Map of The Blitz

thank you for sharingI love it when people share! Thank you for passing this post along to others who will want to know about it.

 

Tell Your Ancestor’s Story: Use Social History for Genealogy

Do you wish you knew more about your ancestor’s everyday life experience? Use social history for genealogy: to fill in the gaps between documented events.

social history for genealogy family history

Recently we heard from Barbara Starmans, a social historian, genealogist and longtime listener of three of Lisa’s podcasts. She wrote to share a new blog she started.

“While I’ve maintained my Out of My Tree Genealogy blog for many years, I’ve just launched The Social Historian, a longform story website featuring social history themed articles from across the centuries and around the world.”

Social history is about “the lives of ordinary people,” explains Barbara. “It is a view of history from the bottom up, rather than from the top down…. [It’s about] understanding…how people lived, worked and played in their daily lives. It is often the minutia of someone’s life that tells the story of who they were and what they believed in.”

“By exploring social history, you will be able to research all the circumstances of your ancestors’ lives and to build their life stories from the details you find.” Barbara send us a great list that we adapted and boiled down to a few core topics:

  • Life cycle: Birth and birthing customs, health and lifestyle practices, medicine, diseases and epidemics, mental health, mortality rates, death and burial customs.
  • Life at home: Clothing and fashion, food and cooking, housekeeping, land and property, alcohol and drug use.
  • Life at work: Economy (prices, cost of living and salaries), occupations, working conditions and the labor movement, businesses and employers, social welfare and relief.
  • Relationships: Morality, marriage and divorce, children and childhood, ethnicity and prejudices,
  • Community life: Celebrations and holidays, traditions, education, language and literacy, religion/church, faith, crime and punishment, societal unrest, leisure pursuits.
  • Game changers: War, emigration, inventions, transportation, communication, slavery and emancipation.

Barbara’s social history blog gives lots of great examples of her belief that “beyond just names and dates, those who came before us have a story to tell….By learning about their time and place and how they lived in it, you can add to your understanding of who they were.”

Resources

Genealogists Google Toolbox 2nd edition cover

The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox by Lisa Louise Cooke is packed with strategies for learning about your ancestors’ lives online. There’s an entire chapter on using Google Scholar for genealogy!

Where can you look for social history online? I’d start with these sites:

1. Make sure you’re using all of Google’s fantastic resources, including Google Books and Google Scholar

2. Click to find Social history resources at the Library of Congress

3. American Social History Project at the City University of New York

Have fun! I think learning about the everyday lives of our ancestors is one of the most fascinating parts of family history.

media_icon_like_400_wht_9163Thanks for sharing this post with others who will enjoy it!

Celebrate Constitution Day with The National Archives on YouTube

anniversary of the US Constitution DayToday is Constitution Day: the 228th anniversary of the signing of the U.S. Constitution. The National Archives is celebrating with free programs and a special Family Day. 

Most of us won’t be able to attend in person, but the National Archives will be webcasting several of its free public programs live on the National Archives YouTube Channel. These include:

Our Lost Constitution: The Willful Subversion of America’s Founding DocumentThursday, September 17, 12 pm. “Senator Mike Lee (R-UT) tells dramatic, little-known stories behind six of the Constitution’s most indispensable provisions and explains why some of today’s issues are the direct result of how the courts, Congress, and the executive branch have minimized or ignored them. A book signing will follow the program.”

The Young Madisons: Why a New Generation Is Standing Up for the Constitution. Thursday, September 17, 7 pm. “A rising generation of civic leaders, shaped by the digital revolution, is reaffirming its commitment to the rights-based principles of the U.S. Constitution. The ninth annual State of the Constitution Lecture at the National Archives…focuses on the voices of young leaders in the spheres of policy, governance, and citizen engagement who are shaping America’s future as a constitutional democracy.”

The Constitution: An Introduction. Wednesday, September 30, 12 pm. “Practically every aspect of American life is shaped by the Constitution….Yet most of us know surprisingly little about the Constitution itself. In his book The Constitution, professor Michael S. Paulsen, one of the nation’s leading scholars of constitutional interpretation, has written a lively introduction to the supreme law of the United States, covering the Constitution’s history and meaning in clear, accessible terms, and provides us with the tools to think critically and independently about constitutional issues.”

More on the U.S. Constitution from the National Archives:

Will you be in town that day? Here’s what you should know:

  • The original U.S. Constitution is on permanent display in the National Archives. Museum hours are 11:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. due to a morning naturalization ceremony (which is not open to the public).
  • Programs will be held in the William G. McGowan Theater, unless otherwise noted. Attendees should use the Special Events entrance on Constitution Avenue at 7th Street, NW. Metro accessible on the Yellow and Green lines, Archives/Navy Memorial/Penn Quarter station.
  • FAMILY DAY: Between 1-4 pm in the Boeing Learning center there will be special hands-on activities for families and children.
  • Advance registration is required for the free program “The Young Madisons.”

More Resources

Genealogy Gems Book Club Genealogy Family HistoryGenealogy Gems Book Club. We have lots of great reading picks for family history lovers, both for pleasure reading or more serious how-to genealogy books.

Digitizing Colonial America: Help is on the Way for Your Colonial Genealogy

Top 25 Tips for Finding Your Colonial Ancestors on-demand webinar by D. Joshua Taylor

thanks youre a gemSometimes we recommend resources available through ShopFamilyTree, Amazon and other affiliates. If you decide to purchase these, thank you for using our links which supports the free Genealogy Gems blog and podcast! 

 

 

 

What I Learned from the Family Work Ethic: Happy Labor Day!

I just came across this  Labor Day post in the Genealogy Gems article archive. I’m sending it out again as a salute to our hard-working forebears and all of YOU who work hard, too.

Labor Day work ethic celebrate ancestors

Originally posted on Sept 2, 2013:

On August 15, I posted a compelling video and article on my Facebook page about the importance of hard word and making your own luck, values I am fortunate that my ancestors passed on to me. The speech came from an unlikely source: a young Hollywood actor. In the video, Ashton Kutcher stands in front of a bunch of teenagers at the Teen Choice Awards talking about the importance of hard work:

“When I was 13, I had my first job with my dad carrying shingles up to the roof, and then I got a job washing dishes at a restaurant, and then I got a job in a grocery store deli, and then I got a job at a factory sweeping Cheerio dust off the ground,” Kutcher said. “And I’ve never had a job in my life that I was better than. I was always just lucky to have a job. And every job I had was a stepping stone to my next job, and I never quit my job until I had my next job. And so opportunities look a lot like work.”

The video went wildly viral (which is how I came across it) and it got me to thinking about my own work ethic. The credit for it sits squarely on my dad’s shoulders, and also my grandparents shoulders, and their grandparents shoulders.

Dad and Grandpa

My dad was the first in his family to get a college degree. He went to school and studied all day and worked in the local hospital morgue at night! (image left: Dad and my proud Grandpa at Dad’s Graduation) I remember endless nights as a kid creeping up behind him as he sat in at the makeshift office in my parent’s master bedroom, puffing on a pipe and studying for his CPA. We didn’t have much in common to talk about, but it was what I saw in action that was communicating to me. Dad went on to become a successful businessman in a large company, and later created several vibrant businesses.

I guess it was that non-verbal communication between father and daughter that inspired me as a kid to pull weeds, babysit and yes even shingle the side of the garage to make a few bucks.  And I vividly remember taking a temporary job caring for a 100 old year woman for a few weeks one summer. She was testy at first as she felt generally ignored, but warmed up to her inquisitive caregiver until she was soon sharing stories of traveling as a little girl in a covered wagon. She’d found her audience and I was entranced.

At 15 I lied about my age so I could get a job at pizza place washing dishes. Within two days they promoted me to cook, a position a girl had never held in that restaurant.

Later I went on to my teenage dream job – sales clerk at the Mall record store. (Sheer persistence helped me beat out all the other teens for that one!) And then, on to a job at Radio Shack (this time the first female to be hired in the state!) as the TRS-80 hit the shelves.

I started my professional career working for free at a travel agency to get a little resume cred as I finished travel agent school, and was the first to land a job a week before graduation. I went on to working in corporate America where I received invaluable career development.

grandkids help2

Signing books with my grandsons.

But like my dad, I’m an entrepreneur at heart. I’ve created a couple of businesses and positions for myself over the years, and find myself now with Genealogy Gems living my dream and drawing from all of my past experiences.

There have been many challenges along the way – no one ever said work was easy. And in fact, my mom’s favorite saying that was drilled in to us as kids was “life isn’t fair – get over it!” She was absolutely right, and she removed the obstacle of fretting over fairness from my life, so I could just get on with working hard and creating my own dreams. I was one lucky kid!

Now whenever a challenge arises, my instinct is to say to myself: I can’t wait to find out what future opportunity this dilemma is training me for!” Almost without exception, I can look back over my past work experiences and see how they are helping me today. Some of the very worst have turned out to be blessings. (Update: I talk more about this and my career in an interview I did on the Genealogy Professional Podcast Episode 29.)

So what “lucky” opportunities have you had and created? On this Labor Day I hope you’ll join me in the comments and also share what you learned from your previous generations.

The good news: Even if the most recent generations that came before let you down, family history offers you centuries to pull new and positive values from. Your ancestors were survivors and yep, that’s why you’re here! You may have parents or grandparents who went astray, but you have countless ancestors to find, and learn from. And best of all, you get to pick which values you wish to embrace, and which will fall by the wayside.

www.geneaogygems.comLet us pass on what our ancestors taught us so our kids and grandkids can enjoy the opportunities, growth, reward and freedom that comes from good old hard work.

Why not share this post with someone YOU know who works hard? Let them know how much you admire them.

 

We Dig These Gems! New Genealogy Records Online

We dig these gemsHere’s our weekly list of new genealogy records online. Do any collections below relate to your family history? Please share with your genealogy buddies or with societies that might be interested!

AUSTRALIA WWI WOMEN. New media resources, including a television series, Facebook page and Twitter feed have been created to share more information about Australians and New Zealanders who participated in World War I, particularly women. Click here for a related blog post from The National Archives (Australia).

COLOMBIA CHURCH RECORDS. More than a million browsable records have been added to an existing database at FamilySearch, Colombia Catholic Church Records 1600-2012. “These records include: baptisms, confirmations, marriages, pre-marriage investigations, marriage dispensations, deaths, and indexes.” Some of the collection is already indexed.

ENGLAND ELECTORAL REGISTERS. Electoral registers for Manchester, England (1832-1900) are now browsable on Findmypast. Details about an ancestor’s residence and property ownership may appear.

NEW JERSEY STATE CENSUS. FamilySearch just added more than 2.7 million records from the 1915 New Jersey Census  to its free online collections. These records include “the names of each member of the household, location, gender, birth date (month and year) and birthplace.” Click here learn more about this and other state censuses.

TEXAS MARRIAGE RECORDS. More than half a million indexed records have been added to an existing free database, Texas County Marriage Records 1837-1977, at FamilySearch. Covering 140 years, the records include “various types of marriage records (registers, licenses, intentions to marry, etc.) from 183 of the 254 counties in Texas.”

share notes with evernoteThank you for sharing these new genealogy records online with your genealogy friends and fellow society members via email and your favorite social media channels. Just use the Share buttons on this page!

 

We Dig These Gems! New Genealogy Records Online

We dig these gemsHere’s our weekly list of new genealogy records online. It’s PACKED with European military records from WWII back to the War of 1812. Do any collections below relate to your family history? Please share with your genealogy buddies or with societies that might be interested!

BRITISH POWs IN JAPAN. Over 56,000 records pertaining to the 37,583 British and Commonwealth soldiers released from Japanese captivity in 1945 are now available on Forces War Records. ‘This collection…lists the soldiers, along with the occasional civilian, who endured these conditions. Prisoners were only obliged to provide their name, rank and number so the amount of military information is limited, however the records do include the date of capture, the camp in which they were held and the date of liberation, be that through release, escape or death.”

BRITISH JEWS IN WWI. Findmypast’s new British Jewry Book of Honour 1914-1920 “contains nearly 57,000 color images and transcripts of [an original] two-volume book published in 1922 to record and honor” contributions of more than 50,000 Jews to the British and colonial forces during World War I. “It describes Jewish enlistment, casualties, military honors, Jewish units and the work of Jewish hospitals and other Jewish institutions and agencies. Importantly, it contains alphabetical lists of those killed in action, those who were awarded military honors and the nominal rolls of Jews who served, listed by service and by regiment.”

BRITISH WAR OF 1812. The British Army Casualty Index War of 1812 now at Findmypast “contains the details of over 12,000 soldiers in the British Army who died, deserted, or were imprisoned during the War of 1812 (or the Anglo American War)….Each record consists of a transcript of the original source material that will reveal the soldiers name, birth place, former occupation, rank, regiment or unit, place or action, company officer, company number, removal date and manner of removal – this may include information on how a soldier died or whether he deserted or was a prisoner of war.”

SCOTTISH CHURCH RECORDS. A new Findmypast collection, Scottish Covenanters 1679-1688 contains over 81,000 records of The Covenanters, a “Scottish Presbyterian movement that played an important part in the history of Scotland, England and Ireland, during the 17th century….The records list the individuals who signed the Covenant…[and] a transcript created using sources held by The National Archives and the National Library of Scotland…[with] the Covenanter’s name, county, a description (often their occupation or relatives) and place.”

WWII in EUROPE. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission has launched a new online database of British, Irish, and Commonwealth WWII casualties. It will now be possible for the first time “to see the original records of all 1.7 million individuals the Commission commemorates.” According to a press release, “The digitized records cover British, Irish and Commonwealth casualties from the Second World War, together with records for most other nationals commemorated at CWGC sites: this includes the records for German soldiers.”

We love seeing all these new genealogy records online every week! The trick is to get the word out about them. Will you help us by sharing this post with others?

Chilling Historical Video Footage Found in Online Archive

Eastland disasterA determined graduate student found some chilling historical video footage of a ship that capsized in Chicago. It was in an online archive–but he still had to dig deep for it!

Recently Gems fan Kathy sent us a story about an amazing video footage find. The subject line of her email caught my eye: “Gems can’t always be found by ‘panning:’ sometimes we have to ‘dig!'” She went on to say:

“You’re always stressing the importance of looking in the less obvious places but this is one of the best examples. Attached is an article about a horrific tragedy that happened in Chicago 100 years ago….It explains how video footage [about this disaster] was found in a British online newsreel–but it was not referenced under “Eastland,” the name of the ship, or “Chicago,” the location. We all like the easy way of finding things but finding gems sometimes takes digging and you just can’t pan for it.” (Click here to see the footage, though it may not be something everyone wants to watch.)

Thank you, Kathy! I often encourage people to dig for historical video footage (see Resources, below). Old footage shows us the past so compellingly! Also, did you notice that the video for a Chicago disaster was found in a British archive?? Not even the same country! Not too long ago, we blogged about how the media often picks up out-of-town stories. We may discover coverage about our relatives in newspapers and newsreels far from their homes. Just a tip to help YOU find more gems.

 

Resources:

My Most Amazing Find Ever: Family History on YouTube (No Kidding!)

Find Your Family History in the 1950s (tips for finding video footage)

6 Tips for Using YouTube for Family History

MENU