How to Research Your Ancestors’ Occupations

Tracing your ancestors’ occupations can be one of the best ways to learn more about their everyday lives, skills, financial status and even their social status. Follow these tips and record types into the working lives of your relatives to enrich your family history.

One of my favorite things to learn about my ancestors is the kind of work they did. Whether they were laborers, owned a business, worked on a farm or clerked in a store, there are often records that can tell you more about what their working conditions would have been like; what skills they likely had; and what kind of perks (or lack of) came with the job, like wealth or social status.

Not long ago I heard from Deidre, who was thinking along the same lines. She’s already explored many records that can tell you about an ancestor’s occupation, and now she wants to take things a little further:

“Hi, Lisa! I have listened to most of your podcasts…and have come across something I need some help with. I don’t remember any episodes on business owners and how to research them. I have been recently been researching a new part of the family and they were business owners. One of these family members had a taxi business in Parkersburg, WV then moved to Indianapolis (where I live) to open a restaurant in our downtown, then owned an apartment/business building and leased it out. One of his sons owned drug stores and another was a lawyer.

By using city directories I have found some information about the business, but still wondering if I might be missing more record types. I have used censuses, city directories and local newspapers so far, but are there official legal documents filed for businesses and where would I look? And were there censuses conducted for businesses that would have some detail about the business? The time period I am referring to is 1900 to 1960’s.

It seems this family were entrepreneurial types and tried a lot of business ventures. I had also thought of going down the deed record way for looking at buildings they may have bought, but wondered if these are typically stored in the same place as land deed records at the courthouse. LOTS OF QUESTIONS TO KEEP ME UP AT NIGHT! Any insight is much appreciated! Thank you so much for your show!”

Deidre’s family sounds fascinating—no wonder she wants to learn more about their work! She’s already off to a great start, having learned what kind of work they did. If you need to start from square one, turn to the same kinds of records she already has.

How to research your ancestors’ occupations

1. Identify their line of work

A host of records created about your ancestors may reveal what kind of work they did and who employed them. Census records, obituaries, marriage or death records, city directory entries, draft registration records, pension records, local or county histories: all might mention an occupation.

A photo may reveal an occupation, too. Here’s one that does: see the H.R. Cooke’s Carriage and Motor Works sign in the upper left corner of this photo? It’s from my husband’s Cooke family.

So may a notation on a local map, which might identify an ancestor’s mill, store, school, a factory or hospital that employed him, etc. Remember, our ancestors’ jobs changed over time. A young man may have progressed from a laborer in a mine to the brake man on the coal train to a shift supervisor. Relatives may have changed career paths altogether, too.

When looking through these old records, watch for the name of an employer. The name of a business is just as researchable as an industry or type of work! (More tips on researching the business below.)

2. Learn more about the trade

Depending on the time period and the trade itself, you may be able to learn various details about what the work typically involved (even if you don’t learn specifics about your ancestor’s experience).

Many terms we see in old records today apply to jobs that no longer exist. Googling an obsolete occupation may help you identify it. For example, if you Google the question, “What is a fuller?” you’ll see a definition at the top and, below that, a clickable explanation at Wikipedia. (For the sake of accuracy, you’ll want to verify that in more scholarly sources.)

I saw once on Facebook that someone was trying to figure out what an occupation was that was on a 1910 census. It turned out to be “Topper” at a Stocking Mill. I guess they added the top band to socks or stockings! (Here’s a fun article done by the folks at MyHeritage.com: 10 jobs that no longer exist. And here’s a list of now-obsolete occupations taken from a U.S. census. If your ancestor’s UK census entry is abbreviated, click here to see what that notation might mean.)

These dictionaries of obsolete occupations may help, too:

You can learn more details about historical occupations in history books and documentaries, some of which you can find online. Use smart Google search methodologies to discover what resources are right at your fingertips.

Here’s an example: Let’s say you discover from a census entry that your great-grandmother was running a boarding-house (or perhaps her husband was listed as the proprietor, but you are guessing she probably did a lot of the daily work for it). Googling the phrase running a boarding house gets you top search results about the modern practice of running a boarding house. Instead, add two more words to your search: historical and census (the latter will capture results about this occupation as it appears in the census). As you can see from this revised search, the top results are exactly the kind of thing you want to read.

Note that the second and third search results are from Google Books (the URL in the search result starts with “books.google”). The first appears to be a history book and the second an academic study. Books written by experts in their field and packed with citations are just the kinds of high-quality research sources you want to find. (Click here to learn more about using Google Books.)

Historical documentaries and old film footage can show you an occupation at work, such as mining, working on the railroad, logging, working at a textile mill, sharecrop-farming. Look for these on YouTube. For example, Contributing Editor Sunny Morton was curious after learning from a city directory that her grandmother was a telephone operator in the 1940s. What did that involve?

She went to YouTube and found some fantastic 1940s-era training videos showing operators at work. While some of these may be staged performances, with every operator smiling for the camera and doing her job in tip-top shape, they do show long rows of operators at their stations and give an idea of what their responsibilities were. Sunny could see how they were expected to dress and behave and what their daily tasks looked like. Here’s a quick example of the kinds of short training videos she found:

The idea that telephone operators handled emergency calls surprised Sunny, who grew up in the 9-1-1 era. As a young woman just past high school, Sunny’s grandmother would have been coached to respond to frantic callers and dispatch first responders. Sunny’s grandma would also have received training on how to handle different kinds of calls, such as party lines and long-distance routing through multiple switchboards.

Click here for tips on finding old film footage online. Just for inspiration and proof that this really does work, here’s a video Sunny found after following my tips: it’s her husband’s great-grandfather driving his fire engine in 1937! (Click here to read Sunny’s story about that amazing discovery.)

3: Look for any records created by or about the business itself

If your relative worked at a major factory or mill, such as The Ford Motor Company or Lowell Mill, you may find historical books, documentaries and even museum exhibits specifically about them. But smaller businesses often received a shout-out in local history books, too. So it can pay off to run Google searches with the names of family businesses (or even the type of business, such as tailor, hotel or restaurant) and the name of the town and state. (Add the word history to narrow search results.)

Here’s an example an ecstatic Genealogy Gems listener sent in. He was tipped off by an old map about a place called Todd Pond in his ancestor’s small town. His ancestors were surnamed Todd and lived right there. So he Googled Todds Pond North Attleboro and found a real gem! His family’s business was mentioned in a local history:

“In the days before electric refrigeration, North Attleborough’s homes and stores relied upon ice harvested from either Whiting’s Pond or Todd’s Pond (depicted here). By the time this 1906 photograph was taken, farmers George, Henry, James, and William Todd found selling ice more profitable than farming and founded the Oldham Ice Co.”

(For copyright reasons, we can’t show the picture here. But click here to read more about Thom’s discovery and access the book for yourself.)

Businesses themselves often created records. Stores kept ledgers. Factories and other businesses may have kept personnel records and employee pay cards. They may have published newsletters or histories. Sunny shared the following two fun examples with me:

City directories from the 1950s state that her grandfather worked at the Sinton Dairy (he was the husband of the telephone operator, who by this time was a stay-at-home mom). Among the family papers handed down to one of their children was a company brochure. A picture in the brochure shows him standing next to a vat of ice cream.

The father of the ice cream man, Sunny’s great-grandpa, worked at Colorado Fuel & Iron for most of his life. Her mom Cheryl, a professional genealogy librarian, visited the Steelworks Center of the West, which holds the records of the Colorado Fuel & Iron Company in its archive. Cheryl was able to get a copy of her grandfather’s employment application and work record. Though it’s partly illegible, this work record summarizes his dates of employment and steady progress through the ranks to become a foreman.

It’s possible you’ll find museum or archival collections like the one mentioned above by doing Google searches on the name of the company, place and industry. But you may need to search more specifically in ArchiveGrid, which is an enormous catalog of the original manuscript holdings of thousands of archives, libraries, museums and societies. Click here to learn more about using ArchiveGrid.

Now back to Deidre’s question

Deidre’s email shows she was thinking outside the box already about records that might document her family’s business, such as deeds for business properties. In addition to the above strategies, Deidre may next want to start hunting for the following:

  • Local histories that may mention her family’s businesses
  • Original archival records pertaining to the businesses
  • Maps showing her family’s neighborhood at the time, specifically Sanborn maps, which often identified businesses and included some detailed information about properties.

Deidre specifically asked about legal documents or censuses conducted for businesses for the period 1900-1960s. The special U.S. census schedules relating to specific businesses and industries largely only exist with individual data before this time period. Legal documents would need to be researched on a case-by-case basis: it’s very possible at least one of those businesses faced lawsuits, bankruptcy or other issues that would have taken them into court. Click here to read up on researching on courthouses.

Another possibility is professional directories that could have been published specific to her relatives’ line of work. Here’s a link to an Ancestry.com wiki article on professional directories: the first category mentioned is law directories.

Finally, it might be helpful to contact the local genealogical and historical societies for the areas they lived. Often, a longtime local may know about gems that may only be on library shelves or tucked into a manuscript collection that isn’t listed in ArchiveGrid.

Learn more about ancestors’ occupations

Now that you’ve finished reading, I encourage you to go back and click on links provided to learn MORE about discovering ancestors’ occupations. If you’re ready to learn advanced online research skills (like mastering Google searching and Google Books) please consider becoming a Genealogy Gems Premium member. You’ll have access to full-length video tutorials on these topics and more–for a full year! To give you a taste of Premium, here’s a preview of my Google Books class.

About the Author: Lisa Louise Cooke

About the Author: Lisa Louise Cooke

Lisa is the Producer and Host of the Genealogy Gems Podcast, an online genealogy audio show and app. She is the author of the books The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox, Mobile Genealogy, How to Find Your Family History in Newspapers, and the Google Earth for Genealogy video series, an international keynote speaker, and producer of the Family Tree Magazine Podcast.

Inspiring Family History Video Ideas Sent In By YOU

These family history video ideas and comments/questions sent in by Genealogy Gems listeners can inspire your own short videos. See how they script their stories, find royalty-free music soundtracks and more. Then visualize yourself in the director’s chair—what kind of family history video do YOU want to make?

For a while now, I’ve been encouraging everyone to produce their own short family history videos. You don’t need a big budget, lots of fancy equipment or even a director’s chair (although I wouldn’t mind having one of those!). A few simple online tools, like Animoto’s do-it-yourself video platform, can help you create family history videos that are oh-so-shareable with relatives on social media. I’ve heard some great family history video ideas from you—along with an important question about finding royalty-free music.

Family history video ideas: Celebrate special birthdays

Muffy in Seattle, WA sent in the following email:

“Finally got around to listening to Episode #213 and the great story about the video y’all made to go with Tom’s poem [watch it below]. What a great idea to have him read his poem and then add pictures. Something to think about for my future videos!

This inspired me to share a video I created this past Christmas for my Dad. Trying to find out where our branch of Walkers comes from was my inspiration for starting into the very addicting world of genealogy. Unfortunately, it remains the only direct line I cannot trace across the pond. Gotta retire! Here is a link to my first video I wanted to share. Great hit with my Dad, uncle, and cousins. Maybe it will be inspiration for others to take the leap into the video world.”

Family history video question: What about music?

Melissa sent this important question about creating a soundtrack for your family history videos:

“Hello Lisa,

I have made a video using a basic subscription to Animoto and am very pleased with it. I do have a question about using music. While there are some choices on my basic subscription, I seem to have my own idea of the music I would like. In your video you mentioned to make sure the music we download is permissible.

I searched for public domain music and came up with nothing useful. Even looked on the Library of Congress Jukebox collection but it is only streamed and I think using that would not be permissible. How do I find more available and permissible music to use for the videos? My videos are just for family members and not for profit but I want to do the right thing.

I look forward to your podcasts and videos. You continue to educate me!”

Here are some tips for Melissa (and the rest of you) about finding music. First, I do use music that comes with two video-creating tools I use: Animoto (you can purchase personal subscription plans for 10% off with promocode PER10OFF) and Camtasia, which video software I use all the time (it’s a special favorite for screen-capturing my Google Earth Family History Tours).

Unfortunately, I have found free royalty-free music sites few and far between. You’re smart to be cautious because if you were to put your video on YouTube they have the technology to identify any song that is used that is a violation of copyright.

The good news is that YouTube does make free music available to you. Sign in to YouTube with your Google account, click on your picture in the upper right corner, and go to your Creator Studio. Upload your video (you can keep it private if you wish) and then on the video page click “Audio” (above the video title). There are many music tracks to choose from. Once you’ve added a track and saved it, you should be able to download the video with the music included.

An easy way to browse royalty-free music on YouTube is to filter your YouTube search results by those marked with a Creative Commons license, like this:

(Just be sure to read up on using Creative Commons material. There are still rules to follow about how to use it and how to properly credit it.)

Melissa sent this answer: “Thank you, Lisa, for your response. I did go to YouTube and found the music I wanted, “Keep on the Sunny Side,” with a Creative Commons license. My mother sang that when I was a child and she heard it from her aunt, who raised her when she was a child. It was the perfect song for the Animoto video of my mother’s memories of her mother and aunt. It was wonderful to find that song in public domain! I had no idea to look there before your response.”

Family history video ideas: Put your memories to music

Not long ago, I helped Genealogy Gems listener Tom Boyer put his own memories to music. He’d actually written his thoughts in poem form, inspired by the “Where I’m From” family history poetry initiative we shared with listeners in the free Genealogy Gems Podcast episode 185. It took Tom a while to write his own poem, but he finally sent it in. I found it so inspiring I created a video with his pictures and an audio track of him reading it. You can listen to the free Genealogy Gems Podcast episode 213, mentioned above, to hear more about how that collaboration with Tom went. Watch the video here–I think it turned out beautifully:

More family history video ideas

The Genealogy Gems website is packed with resources for helping you create beautiful family history videos and books for sharing your family history with loved ones. Try these ones:

6 tips to create family history books they can’t put down

Step-by-step: Create a short family history video

A video interview: Remembering Dad

About the Author: Lisa Louise Cooke

About the Author: Lisa Louise Cooke

Lisa is the Producer and Host of the Genealogy Gems Podcast, an online genealogy audio show and app. She is the author of the books The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox, Mobile Genealogy, How to Find Your Family History in Newspapers, and the Google Earth for Genealogy video series, an international keynote speaker, and producer of the Family Tree Magazine Podcast.

Disclosure: This article contains affiliate links and Genealogy Gems will be compensated if you make a purchase after clicking on these links (at no additional cost to you). Thank you for supporting Genealogy Gems!

Episode 214

The Genealogy Gems Podcast
Episode #214
with Lisa Louise Cooke

In this episode, Irish expert Donna Moughty joins host and producer Lisa Louise Cooke to talk about Irish genealogy?to help you get a jump on yours before everyone starts talking about their Irish roots on St. Patrick’s Day next month!Also in this episode:

  • Your DNA Guide Diahan Southard has DNA news
  • Other listeners write in with inspiring successes
  • Michael Strauss musters in with tips on finding your ancestors in the five branches of the U.S. military.

NEWS: MYHERITAGE DNA MATCHING UPDATE

The MyHeritageDNA test matching algorithm has gotten better?AND they’ve added a chromosome browser. Time to test with MyHeritage DNA or upload your results from another company for free? Click here to read all about it!

MAILBOX: LISTENERS ON FAMILY HISTORY VIDEOS

Muffy in Seattle sent this link to her family history video. Great job!

Melissa asked about finding copyright-free music to add to family history videos. Lisa’s tips:

Unfortunately, free royalty-free music sites are few and far between.

You’re smart to be cautious because if you were to put your video on YouTube they have the technology to identify any song that is used that is a violation of copyright.

YouTube does make free music available:

  1. Sign into YouTube with your Google account
  2. Click on your picture in the upper right corner and go to your Creator Studio.
  3. Upload your video (you can keep it private if you wish) and then on the video page click “Audio” (above the video title).
  4. Choose among the many music tracks there.
  5. Once you’ve added a track and saved it, you should be able to download the video with the music included.

The other source of music I use is music that comes with the programs I use (Animoto and Camtasia).

GENEALOGY BUSINESS ALLIANCE
GBA Buzz game for RootsTech 2018; Play the game. See websites for complete rules.

Lisa Louise Cooke uses and recommends RootsMagic family history software. From within RootsMagic, you can search historical records on FamilySearch.org, Findmypast.com and MyHeritage.com.

Keep your family history research, photos, tree software files, videos and all other computer files safely backed up with Backblaze, the official cloud-based computer backup system for Lisa Louise Cooke’s Genealogy Gems. Learn more at https://www.backblaze.com/Lisa.

INTERVIEW: DONNA MOUGHTY ON IRISH RESEARCH

Preparing for Success in Irish Records by Donna M Moughty

The following review appeared in the January 2018 newsletter of the Midwest Genealogy Center, Mid-Continent Public Library:

“If you want a quick guide on how to get started on Irish research, this short, four-page guide is an excellent resource. This guide will help you start your research in the United States, so you can figure out where in Ireland your ancestor came from. It is organized into 12 steps with helpful websites added. This guide is the first in the Irish Research Series by Donna M Moughty.”

Donna Moughty, shown left with Lisa Louise Cooke, is a professional genealogist and former Regional Manager for Apple Computers. She has been conducting family research for over 20 years. She teaches classes for beginners and lectures on a variety of subjects including Internet, Irish research, and computer topics. In addition, she provides consultations, research assistance, and training. She is a member of Association of Professional Genealogists and the Genealogical Speakers Guild.

Websites mentioned in their conversation:

irishgenealogy.ie

National Library of Ireland

rootsireland.ie

moughty.com

Donna’s Irish guide series

Get the value-priced bundle of three or purchase them individually through the links below:

Preparing for Success in Irish Records Research – Guide #1 (reviewed above): Without the right preparation, researching in Ireland can be frustrating! Before you jump the pond, start your research at home to determine a place in Ireland, as well as details to help differentiate your person from someone of the same name. This research guide will walk you through the process of identifying records in the US to set you up for success in your Irish research.

Irish Civil Registration and Church Records – Guide #2. Civil Registration for all of Ireland began in 1864, with Protestant marriages dating back to 1845. Even if your ancestors left before that date, they likely had relatives that remained in Ireland. Prior to Civil Registration, the only records of births (baptisms), marriages or deaths (burials) are in church records. This Reference Guide will explain how to use the new online Civil Registration records as well as how to identify the surviving church records for your ancestors in Ireland.

Land, Tax, and Estate Records – Guide #3 (NEW!). Had the Irish census records for the 19th century survived, Griffith’s Valuation, a tax list, would not be one of the most important resources for Irish researchers. Without any context, however, it can just seem like a list that includes lots of people of the same name. This Guide explains how and why Griffith’s Valuation was done, and how to use it to glean the most information about your family. Once you know your ancestor’s locality in Ireland, Griffith’s Valuation can place them on a specific piece of land between 1846 and 1864. After Griffith’s Valuation, the Revision Books allow you to follow the land and in some cases, to the 1970s, possibly identifying cousins still living on the land.

Start creating fabulous, irresistible videos about your family history with Animoto.com. You don’t need special video-editing skills: just drag and drop your photos and videos, pick a layout and music, add a little text and voila! You’ve got an awesome video! Try this out for yourself at Animoto.com.

http://www.myheritage.com/?utm_source=ppc_lisa_cooke&utm_medium=ppc&utm_campaign=site_052015&tr_ad_group=website

MyHeritage.com is the place to make connections with relatives overseas, particularly with those who may still live in your ancestral homeland. Click here to see what MyHeritage can do for you: it’s free to get started.

MILITARY MINUTES: 5 BRANCHES OF THE MILITARY

Each of the military branches is listed below, detailing information about when each was organized and resources available to genealogists on your ancestors who served in any of these branches.

United States Army. The largest of the five military branches dates back to June 14, 1775, during the early days of the Revolutionary War. Prior to the formation of the Army, each colony had companies and battalions of Associators and local militia. With the war, the need for a professional standing army to fight the British saw the formation of the Continental Army.

With the end of the Revolutionary War, the Army disbanded in 1783 after the signing of the Treaty of Paris. Later in 1796, two legions formed under the command of General Anthony Wayne would later become the nucleus of the United States Army. The Encyclopedia Britannica published this nice article on the history of the Army from its inception to the present.

A number of excellent genealogical resources are available to search for ancestors who served in the United States Army since the beginning. These databases are found on Ancestry, Fold3, and Family Search.  One of the largest collections of records covers the United States Regular Army enlistments from 1798 to 1914 (available by subscription at Ancestry.com). Searching the card catalogs of Ancestry.com, Fold3 and FamilySearch will yield many databases that contain information about soldiers who served, and sacrificed their lives with the Army over the last two centuries.

United States Navy. The United States Navy dates from October 13, 1775 when it was officially established by an Act passed by the Continental Congress.  At the end of the Revolutionary War it was disbanded, and again reestablished under the Naval Act of 1794 which created the Navy as a permanent branch of the military.

The history of the Navy and technology can be divided into two major eras. The earlier period, called the “Old Navy,” was the age of wooden sailing ships, and still later came the birth of the ironclads during the Civil War. The later period called the “New Navy” occurred with further innovations in late nineteenth century as the United States transformed into a global power recognized the throughout the world.

The United States Navy website has a nice background history of the service.   Numerous databases and searches for records of the Navy covering multiple war period detailing pensions, continental sailors, muster rolls, ships logs, and cruise books are located on Ancestry.com, Fold3 and FamilySearch.  Consult each database individually for records of interest.

Another organization related to the Navy is the United States Merchant Marines. Although not officially a branch of the military, the Merchant Marines sacrificed and lost lives since the days of the Revolutionary War, carrying out their missions of supply and logistics during times of war. Here’s an excellent website on the history of the Merchant Marines.

United States Air Force. The modern day Air Force dates from September 18, 1947, when it was formed as part of the Security Act of 1947. The Air Force and aviation history began under the authority of the United States Army, starting on August 1, 1907 when it was organized under the name of the Aeronautical Division of the Signal Corps.  Over the next 30 years the service changed names several times:

Aviation Section of the Signal Corps (1914-1918);

Division of Military Aeronautics (1918);

Air Service of the United States Army (1918-1926);

United States Army Air Corps (1926-1941);

United States Army Air Forces (1941-1947).

In that final year, it was separated as its own organization as it is known today. Click here for a complete history of the Air Force from 1907 to the present.

Two excellent online sources covering the early history of the Air Force from World War I and World War II are located on Fold3:

Gorrell’s history when part of the AEF in 1917-1918  and

Missing air crew reports during the World War II

United States Marines. This elite branch of the military began with the organization of the Continental Marines on November 19, 1775. The mission of the Marines initially comprised ship-to-ship fighting, security onboard naval vessels, and assistance in landing force operations. This mission would continue to evolve over the years. At the end of the Revolutionary War, the Marines were disbanded on October 4, 1783.

Along with the Navy, under the Naval Act of 1794, the United States Marines were again re-established and would serve faithfully in every major war period and in peacetime between conflicts. The Marines will forever remain true to their motto of “Semper Fidelis” or Always Faithful as they continue to live up to their long-running tradition of honor and service. Click here to watch an interesting and accurate history of the Marine Corps is viewable online on You Tube.

Ancestry.com has an excellent online genealogical resource for discovering Marine Corps ancestors: fully searchable Marine Corps muster rolls from 1798 to 1958 for enlistees.

Coast Guard. The history of this seagoing service dates back to August 4, 1790.  Established as the Revenue Cutter Marines under the direction of Alexander Hamilton, the name was changed in 1894 to the Revenue Cutter Service until 1915. That year, an Act of Congress was passed and signed into law by President Woodrow Wilson called the “Act to Create Coast Guard.” The United States Live Saving Service and Revenue Cutter Service came together. Later, in 1939, the United States Light House Service was added to form the modern day United States Coast Guard.

The complete history of the United States Coast Guard from 1790 is on the Historians Office. It includes information about each of the separate organizations that came together to form the Coast Guard at. Ancestry.com has a collection of casualties of the Navy, Marines, and Coast Guard. Very few additional online sources are available online for this branch of the service. Researchers must access these documents and records onsite at the National Archives in Washington, DC.

Military Minutes Case Study

By Michael Strauss
Subject: Russell Strauss
Died: December 27, 1981-Jonestown, PA
Son of Harry B. Strauss & Agnes S. (Gerhart) Strauss

Over the last 30 plus years doing genealogy research, I’ve discovered that nearly all of my family members who served in the military were in the United States Army. But I have been occasionally surprised to find relatives who served in other branches of the military.

On the paternal family several years ago one of my cousins gave me a box of photographs. One of the images was marked Russell G. Strauss. He wore the uniform of the United States Navy during World War II. I recognized his name and knew that he was my grandfather’s first cousin. I was 16 years old when he died and didn’t know him very well.

His uniform indicated that he was a third class petty officer in the Navy during the war. I looked further at his uniform and noticed a diamond shaped “S” as part of the insignia. This military occupation indicated that he was a specialist that would require further research. I spoke with a couple of my older family members who knew Russell. All of my family interviewed said that he in the military police (M.P.) during the war. With additional research, I discovered that his insignia was that of the Shore Patrol. When I compared what my family said to me and his uniform told me the information matched very closely.

I found on Ancestry his application for compensation from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in 1950 when he served in the Shore Patrol in Norfolk, Virginia as part of his military duty (inserted below). Putting information from his photograph together with what my family members shared with me helped answer questions I had regarding of my relatives.

PRODUCTION CREDITS

Lisa Louise Cooke, Host and Producer
Sunny Morton, Editor
Diahan Southard, Your DNA Guide, Content Contributor
Vienna Thomas, Associate Producer
Hannah Fullerton, Production Assistant
Lacey Cooke, Service Manager

Disclosure: This page contains affiliate links and Genealogy Gems will be compensated if you make a purchase after clicking on these links (at no additional cost to you). Thank you for supporting this free podcast and blog!

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Tracing your African American Roots: Top Tips

Researching African American roots has unique challenges. This Q&A with expert Angela Walton-Raji can inspire you with tips and success stories. Learn what to ask, what history you should know, how to face the 1870 “wall” and how to explore your ancestor’s freedom story.

Not long ago, genealogy expert Angela Walton-Raji joined me on the Genealogy Gems Podcast. She shared fantastic insights about tracing your African American roots, including why it can be challenging and how to overcome some of the brick walls you might encounter.

I’ve distilled our conversation down to some essential points here. Of course, I invite you to listen to the whole thing yourself in the free Genealogy Gems Podcast, episode 201.

Tracing your African American roots: With Angela Walton-Raji

To start with, I asked Angela what was unique about tracing your African American genealogy. She offered this important background:

“The African American story is unique in and of itself. Of course we get into the standard records that everyone uses: the vital records and census records. But there are going to be some challenges once one gets into 19th century, particularly once one reaches what we call the “wall” of 1870. [On the previous census, about 90% of African Americans were enslaved and therefore they aren’t listed.] Often you’re not quite sure where to go next.”

Oral history: what to ask

When someone doesn’t appear in the mainstream record trail, you have to find another path. Sometimes, you can start down that path with living relatives. Here’s some advice from Angela about talking with your family:

“Oral history is really important. If you’re talking to an elder today who may be in their seventies, they were clearly born in the 20th century. They may be the last generation living who knew someone who had been born enslaved. So ask them: ‘Who was the oldest person that you remember when you were a child? And did that person ever talk about anyone who may have been enslaved?’ Find out whether they happened to know anyone when they were a child who had been born into slavery.”

“Also ask what they know about where the family was from: ‘Were we always from Georgia, or were we always from Pennsylvania, or was there a time when we came from another place?’ There are so many critical questions and also key points in the historical timeline that you want to zoom in on and ask elders. These are critical things to ask elders to sort of jar their memories and get them to start talking as well.”

I totally agree with Angela about the need to ask questions that get people remembering. Often when we sit down with someone for an interview, the first response may be, “Oh, I don’t know” or “I don’t remember.” But if you come prepared with a collection of really thoughtful yet pointed questions, you can help them access their memories. They may be amazed at just how much they really do remember.

The most compelling stories in our family histories are often to be found during moments of change and transition. And that’s certainly what the end of slavery was. Angela talks passionately about discovering your family’s freedom story:

“The war ended. Slavery ended. How did freedom come to your family? It was not the same for everyone. Don’t forget, a major war took place. Some had a male relative (or several) who enlisted in the Union Army. Some emancipated themselves. If there was a conflict nearby or if there was a Union raid coming through the town, this was an opportunity. Men, women, and children left and followed the line and became contraband. There were hundreds of contraband camps all around the South. Some volunteered; some became employees, nurses, matrons, and cooks. (Click on this Wikipedia Commons photo of a contraband camp to learn more about it.)

“And what’s amazing is there may be records. We know the Freedmen’s Bureau records are there, but there are a whole lot of other records also. The records of the U.S. Colored Troops contain a plethora of family data, particularly if the soldier upon his death left a widow, or children, or sometimes a mother (I’ve even seen fathers claim a pension for a deceased son).

“Again, sometimes the key is to learn the history—even the local history. Let’s take Memphis, Tennessee for example. Right now if you live outside of Memphis, there’s a big industrial park in a little area called President’s Island. Well, guess what? In the Civil War President’s Island became a contraband camp. There were three contraband camps close to Memphis, and these were individuals who had really freed themselves and then had started to settle and create little settlements during the war and into the late 1860s, and this became a community. And that’s a story right there.” [Angela actually shares her own family’s story at President’s Island in this blog post.]

Next steps: Finding your enslaved ancestors

After discovering that freedom story, a genealogist tracing African American roots will eventually reach the point in history when their ancestors were enslaved. Angela describes this as requiring an entirely new approach: “identify the last-known slaveholder, and then follow that person’s history—because within their history you often find your ancestors popping up, as well. It’s a challenge but it can be done.”

Angela goes deeper into this and other topics in her video class, African American Genealogy Research Essentials. This hour-long class covers barriers arising from the institution of slavery and how to overcome them with persistence and the right approach. You’ll learn essential resources for digging deep into your African-American family history, with an emphasis on those that can be found online. This video class was originally presented as a live webinar and includes her Q&A. Click on the image here to order that webinar.

Thanks to Angela for sharing these strategies with us here at Genealogy Gems—and thanks in advance to YOU for sharing this free article with others who will want to read it. You’re a gem!

About the Author: Lisa Louise Cooke

About the Author: Lisa Louise Cooke

Lisa is the Producer and Host of the Genealogy Gems Podcast, an online genealogy audio show and app. She is the author of the books The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox, Mobile Genealogy, How to Find Your Family History in Newspapers, and the Google Earth for Genealogy video series, an international keynote speaker, and producer of the Family Tree Magazine Podcast.

Here’s the Reason NOT to be a Genealogy Hoarder

If you may fit the description of a “genealogy hoarder,” you should read this letter from Roland. He shares a powerful story about being generous with our genealogical treasures. (P.S. Sharing family history items can also help you declutter your genealogy files!)

I often hear about the generosity of genealogists: the way they freely share their time, research skills, and even precious family artifacts and photos with others. But it’s probably easier than we realize to lapse into the practice of being a “genealogy hoarder:” keeping family history treasures to ourselves. Maybe we’re just a little attached to them or feeling possessive about our family.

More likely, we just happen to be in quiet possession of something special that we haven’t thought about sharing—or we haven’t figured out how to best to do it.

From genealogy hoarder to generous genealogist

I love this story from Roland about what happened when he made the effort to share:

“I recently ran across a funeral booklet in a relative’s ancestry research materials that I could not connect to that relative in any fashion. It was printed professionally in 1944 by the deceased’s husband and contained a photo, complete biography, obituary and portions of the minister’s eulogy. I looked on Ancestry.com to see if anyone was researching the lady and made a connection with a direct descendant.

By the time you receive this, I will have mailed it to that individual for their use. I understand he had never seen a photo of this particular relative. I have been the recipient of others’ selfless research and efforts, so I try to digitize, share and move information along to others. When I reach the place where I don’t personally need to store some items, I donate them to the appropriate place or individual for further maintenance. 

I think it’s important that we don’t accidentally hoard data, photos or any information. I’m grateful that institutions, libraries and all sorts of data collection sites around the globe are digitizing and making their information available to researchers like myself. It is priceless.”

I LOVE Roland’s perspective on sharing! Here’s my favorite part (it’s worth repeating!):

I couldn’t agree more with Roland’s sentiments about not falling into the hoarding trap. We all have a chance at some point to make a difference for someone else, and we should embrace it when the opportunity arises!

The Genealogy Gems blog has covered several examples of how people have returned “orphaned heirlooms” home–you’ll find three of these at the end of this article. But we’ve also covered some of the how-tos that will help you do it. For example:

  • Pat was looking for advice on how to use Ancestry.com to track down descendants so she could return artifacts to them. Click here to read advice I gave her about that.
  • A museum in Texas wanted to tell the stories of the people whose heirlooms they held in their collections. But first, they had to research those heirlooms and the stories behind them. Here’s how they did it.
  • Ready to stop holding on to some items in your own archive? Read this article by The Archive Lady Melissa Barker about “decluttering” your genealogy stash—and meaningful solutions for where to dispose of those items.

By the way, Roland also sent along some nice compliments I’d like to share—especially if they’ll help you consider how we here at Genealogy Gems might help your own genealogy in the coming year:

“Love the podcast, information, hints, suggestions and endorsements.  I’ve been conducting family research for about a year. It became clear early on that your website and podcast were at the top of the heap for a novice such as myself, and so I follow both religiously.  Additionally, your broadcasts from RootsTech, interviews with various experts and fellow webcasters, and so forth has also introduced me to other sources that advance my knowledge and research results. I have your book on utilizing Google and I use Backblaze (happily) based on your recommendation.  Your sincerity in educating genealogists and family researchers is plainly evident. Thank you!”

Thank you for the encouragement on all counts, Roland!

Disclosure: This article contains affiliate links and Genealogy Gems will be compensated if you make a purchase after clicking on these links (at no additional cost to you). Thank you for supporting Genealogy Gems!

About the Author: Lisa Louise Cooke

About the Author: Lisa Louise Cooke

Lisa is the Producer and Host of the Genealogy Gems Podcast, an online genealogy audio show and app. She is the author of the books The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox, Mobile Genealogy, How to Find Your Family History in Newspapers, and the Google Earth for Genealogy video series, an international keynote speaker, and producer of the Family Tree Magazine Podcast.

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