Pennsylvania Genealogy Brick Wall Strategies

It’s a common Pennsylvania genealogy brick wall: “My ancestors are from PA—but I don’t know where!” Pennsylvania expert Jim Beidler has strategies that may help narrow down the needle-in-a-haystack problem of identifying your ancestor’s home county. Here, we also add tips on how to follow through—including how to access record images for a major Pennsylvania birth index at FamilySearch.

In the free Genealogy Gems Podcast episode #218, I shared listener Tammie’s question about finding a PA family who had lived in Ohio and throughout the Midwest during the late 1800s. She followed leads online and offline, even visiting a Mennonite archive in Pennsylvania, but couldn’t pinpoint their origins in Pennsylvania. So I invited Pennsylvania research expert Jim Beidler to share some strategies that could help Tammy—and everyone else with Pennsylvania genealogy brick walls.

In case you didn’t catch that episode yet, here’s a summary of some of his top suggestions, along with some step-by-step instructions on how to implement Jim’s strategies.

“Yes, but WHERE in Pennsylvania were they from?”

Jim reminds us that Pennsylvania has 67 counties. That’s a big haystack in which to find a needle! So you either need to make the haystack smaller—by winnowing down the number of possible counties—or make the needle (your ancestor) easier to spot.

Look for children’s birth records

If you can locate a birth record for any child in the family you’re researching, it may indicate where in Pennsylvania the child was born. (If you can find one for the last child born in Pennsylvania before the family moved, you may be able to determine their last area of residence in the state.)

Statewide birth registration didn’t start until 1906 and wasn’t fully implemented until 1915. (Search a free index of births at the Pennsylvania State Archives for 1906-1912  or indexed images for 1906-1910 at Genealogy Giant Ancestry.com.) But 39 counties kept birth records for 1852-1854, too (search these at Ancestry.com as well).

Church birth or baptismal records may also prove helpful in Pennsylvania. Start by accessing the free FamilySearch database Pennsylvania, Births and Christenings, 1709-1950 (you’ll need a free login). Because it’s just an index, you won’t see the original record. But you’ll see a note on the lower right referring to a “GS film number.” Copy that number.

Next, open the FamilySearch Catalog (from the home page, you’ll find it under the Search menu). Click the option to search by film/fiche number (#1 in the image shown to the right). Then paste in the GS film number you copied (#2).

That will bring up the name of the collection. In this case, that “Birth registers, 1860-1903, for the city of Philadelphia.” Click on the collection to see whether online access is available. In the case shown below, it is, as indicated by the bright red text by the arrow.

Clicking through shows that it’s even been indexed. (Note: to view these images, you need to be at a Family History Center, FamilySearch affiliate library or log in as a member of FamilySearch’s sponsoring church (Mormons).)

Findmypast.com (one of the Genealogy Giants subscription websites) also has collections that may prove helpful:

Another set of helpful indexes to early Pennsylvania church records is a multi-county series by the late John Humphrey. It’s not as easy to access but worth the effort. Some of these are searchable for members of the Genealogical Society of Pennsylvania. You can also find these as published volumes organized by county (he indexed several counties in southeast Pennsylvania and the indexes).

If you can determine when a child was born but not where in Pennsylvania, Jim has another strategy to try. Look at the next U.S. census taken after that birth and see where the family’s surname occurs. If it’s a less-common surname, you may be able to narrow down the number of counties.

Search Pennsylvania tax lists

Pennsylvania residents paid property taxes but also taxes on certain kinds of personal property (so they didn’t need to be landowners to appear in property records). Jim explains several different kinds of tax records from colonial times forward. Here’s a summary of places to start your search online:

More help for your Pennsylvania genealogy brick wall

Listen for free to the full Genealogy Gems Podcast episode #218, which will be available on Thursday, June 14, 2018. You’ll hear more tips from Jim, including what to do when you’ve exhausted your online research options and need to start researching offline. Hear tips on researching at the state archive and state library and how to understand Pennsylvania land records (how they were supposed to be and how they actually are).

About the Author: Lisa Louise Cooke 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!

Here’s Why I Reached Out for Help

Sooner or later, we all hit genealogy brick walls: a point in our family history research where we can’t seem to make any further progress. When I hit a brick wall with great-grandpa Gus in Eastern Europe, I turned to Legacy Tree Genealogists. Here’s what their experts found that I hadn’t discovered for myself.

My genealogy brick wall in Eastern Europe

My great-grandfather Gustav Sporowski was born in Kotten, Kreis Johannisburg, East Prussia on July 20, 1881. His wife was born in Kreis Ortelsburg in 1878. I’ve found all of her church records, but have had no luck with his. I’ve met so many people who get stuck researching in Eastern Europe, and East Prussia and the Belarus area in particular. (I strongly suspect that the Sporowski family came from the Sporovo lake region of Belarus). So I invited Legacy Tree Genealogists to take a look at Gus and suggest some next steps. I wondered what someone who specialized in Eastern European research might be able to tell someone like me, who knows how to genealogy but not-so-much in that part of the world.
Reviewing my work

Legacy Tree Genealogists assigned me to a Project Manager, Camille Andrus, who reached out to discuss what I already knew and what I wanted to learn. I requested their Discovery Research Plan, for which they just provide guidance about what record collections to consult and what methods or strategies to try. That way I can do the research myself (which I like doing!). I also asked Camille if she would write about her research process so I could share it with you. Here’s what she sent me:

“We looked over Lisa’s work, and upon initial inspection everything looked great. She had looked in the gazetteer (now available digitally at www.meyersgaz.org with maps of the area) and Lutheran church records. She had searched the records for her ancestor’s supposed home parish. When that failed to yield results, she had done a partial radial search, searching records in several adjacent parishes. Check. Check. Check. She was following all of the integral steps, but still not having success. What had she missed? What had she done wrong? The short answer — nothing. Her research was impeccable, and she was looking in the right places.”

While it’s nice to hear I was following the right path, I was a little worried that it meant there were no more “sledgehammers” out there that I would use to take a nice good swing at my brick wall. But Camille didn’t stop there. She dredged up several additional strategies for me to take, which was just what I was hoping for!

Getting around the genealogy brick wall

Camille had three specific suggestions for where to look next for great-grandpa Gus. At the end, she also offered some helpful reassurance. Here’s what she said:

1. Civil registration in East Prussia

After closer inspection of what Lisa had already tried, we saw several opportunities we could still pursue. We looked up civil registration records available through a Polish archive, since what was East Prussia is now part of modern Poland. German civil registration in East Prussia began in October of 1874 and is an important resource for researching individuals from this area. The Meyers Gazetteer confirmed that Kotten (where her ancestor was from) belonged to Kreis Johannisburg in the German Empire province of East Prussia. This village belonged to the Monethen (Kreis Johannisburg) civil registration district.[1]

The Olsztyn State Archive inventory lists several birth, marriage, death, and family books for the Monethen Civil Registration Office, but the books only cover the late 1930s and early 1940s. The whereabouts of the registers covering 1874 through the early 1930s are unknown. It appears as though the records covering this time period have been lost or destroyed. This situation is not unusual for East Prussia, in general due to the numerous conflicts that have occurred in the area over time.

2. Church records in East Prussia

Another major resource for German genealogy research is church records. The Meyers Gazetteer database noted that Protestant residents of Kotten attended church in the nearby town of Baitkowen (Kreis Lyck).[2]

The church book inventory for Baitkowen revealed that the Protestant parish was established in 1891, a decade after the ancestor Gustav Sporowski was reportedly born. No sacramental registers for this parish are known to be extant. It should be noted that the Baitkowen parish was created from parts of the Lyck, Ostrokollen, and Drygallen parishes.[3]

The Protestant parish of Drygallen (Kreis Johannisburg) has extant baptismal records which are available on microfilm at the Family History Library for the years 1730-1821 and 1844-1875.[4] Lisa indicated that she had reviewed these files but did not find any Sporowskis.

The Lyck Landgemeinde (the congregation for parishioners living outside city limits) was founded in 1704, but there are no known extant baptismal records for this parish after 1808.[5]

3. Following up on clues

The Protestant Bartholomew Church in Lütgendortmund, Dortmund, Germany. Von Smial – Eigenes Werk, FAL. Click to view.

A key clue came from Lisa’s notes. She mentioned that Gustav and his wife were married in Lütgendortmund, a town hundreds of miles west of Gustav’s birthplace, before ultimately immigrating to the United States. Luckily, their marriage occurred in a time when civil registration had been instituted. A search for marriage records showed there are civil registration records available for the town of their marriage, which are available at an archive in Detmold. We were able to advise Lisa that further research should pursue this record, as it may list information about his parents.

Getting Unstuck

The bottom line is that If you feel stuck, it’s not necessarily because you are doing anything wrong. Review the “checkboxes” of your research plan to ensure you aren’t missing any integral clues. If after final review of methodology concludes that you’ve pursued every avenue, the lack of success may be attributed to gaps in the records or perhaps they have been lost completely. Other times all you need is one clue to put you back on the right track.

This is exactly the kind of advice I was hoping for: expert and specific. I feel much more confident about how I’ll spend my time moving forward! If you have hit a genealogy brick wall in Eastern Europe (or anywhere else) consider hiring a professional to review your work. An investment with a pro can save you a tremendous amount of time and frustration. Doesn’t that sound good?

About the Researchers: Legacy Tree Genealogists is a worldwide genealogy research firm with extensive expertise in breaking through genealogy brick walls. For a limited time, go to  Legacy Tree Genealogists and receive $100 off a 20-hour research project using code GGP100. 

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!

[1] Search the Meyers Gazetteer, Kotten, Johannisburg, Allenstein, Ostpreussen, Preussen, http://meyersgaz.org/place/11050078, accessed August 2017.

[2] Search the Meyers Gazetteer, Kotten, Johannisburg, Allenstein, Ostpreussen, Preussen, http://meyersgaz.org/place/11050078, accessed August 2017.

[3] Ostpreussen, Genealogische Quellen, Kirchbuchbestände Kreis Lyck, ev. Baitkowen (Baitenberg), http://wiki-de.genealogy.net, accesesed August 2017.

[4] Ostpreussen, Genealogische Quellen, Kirchbuchbestände Kreis Johannisburg, ev. Drigelsdorf (Drygallen), http://wiki-de.genealogy.net, accesesed August 2017.

[5] Ostpreussen, Genealogische Quellen, Kirchbuchbestände Kreis Lyck, ev. Lyck Stadtgemeinde, http://wiki-de.genealogy.net, accesesed August 2017.

The Genealogy FAN Club Principle Overcomes Genealogy Brick Walls

Another brick wall…busted! We all have trouble spots in our family history research. Sometimes, we just need a little help breaking through. Here’s a tried-and-true method for using the genealogy FAN club principle to overcome brick walls in your family history research.

Creating a FAN club tips

A FAN club stands for Family, Associates, and Neighbors. Using the FAN club principle is a process in which genealogists identify a list of people (family, associates, and neighbors) that lived and associated with a given ancestor. By researching these other people, you may flesh out some new hints for your own research. Ultimately, identifying our ancestors FAN club is an effective tool for overcoming brick walls in genealogy research.

Renowned genealogist and author Elizabeth Shown Mills, coined the phrase “FAN Club” for genealogical purposes. She points out the significance of not only searching records for an ancestor’s surname, but also paying attention to documents about the ancestor’s “FAN Club” (Friends, Associates, Neighbors). Historical information, she says, is like real estate: the true value of any piece of information is unknown until it is put into community context. Learn more in Elizabeth’s “QuickSheet: The Historical Biographer’s Guide to Cluster Research (the FAN Principle).”

Step 1: “F” Stands for Family

Searching out other family members may prove helpful. Like in the case of Michael Knoop of Miami County, Ohio, I noticed there was another man in the county named Jacob Knoop. What was even more unique is both Michael and Jacob were born in New Brunswick. How unusual, I thought! Two men with the same last name, both born in New Brunswick, living in a small, farming area in Ohio! They had to be related, and they were. Jacob was Michael’s older brother.

Because I was having trouble finding when Michael had come to America, I traced Jacob instead. I located the passenger list with Jacob’s name on it and in doing so, I viewed all the passengers and found Michael, their mother, and lots of siblings!

Creating a FAN club family

Creating a FAN club with Family

In the case of Catherine Fearer Coddington, wife of James Coddington, I was having difficulty finding who her parents were. By searching for other Fearer individuals in the area, I discovered a biographical sketch on a John Fearer, Jr. Historical Encyclopedia of Illinois, Volume 2, reads:

In 1836[,]John Fearer [Jr.] brought his family to Illinois. From Wheeling, West Va., the journey was made entirely by water. A landing on the Illinois soil was made at Hennepin. James Coddington, from near the Fearer’s old home in Maryland had already settled north of Princeton, in Bureau County, and later married John Fearer’s sister Catherine. The family found a home at Coddington’s until Mr. Fearer rented land near by.

Catherine had a brother! With this new information, I was able to easily trace John’s father to John Fearer, Sr. of Allegany County, Maryland and finally connect Catherine to her parents through a probate record.

It’s easy to see what a powerful strategy researching the relatives of your ancestors can be!

Step 2: “A” Stands for Associates

Creating a FAN club with associates

Creating a FAN club with Associates

An associate could be a business partner, a witness on a document, a pastor, a lawyer, or the man that bailed Grandpa out of jail! Associates are often related. To create a list of associates, you might start gathering all witnesses to vital events, such as baptismal or christening records, marriage records, probate, land, and affidavits.

Were the courthouse records in your targeted area destroyed? Check the local newspapers for clues for possible associates. As an example, Jacob Trostel was a signee and vouched for Harvey D. Wattles’ tavern license. The license and names of the vouchers were listed in the newspaper, too. Eleven other men of the community appear on that petition. Later, Jacob himself petitions for a tavern license. That petition is signed by twelve men: George Filler, Conrad Slaybaugh, Lebright E. Hartzell, William G. Eicholtz, Isaac Yount, Joseph Dull, Isaac Myers, George W. Rex, Daniel Filler, William Harlan, and John Bream.

In both of these examples, relatives of Jacob Trostel had been vouchers. By tracing them, we were able to find out more about Jacob and his family.

Step 3: “N” Stands for Neighbors

Where can we find a list of our ancestors neighbors? A census, of course! When looking at a census page, we look for other people on the page with the same surname as our targeted ancestor. There’s a good chance those folks could also be related. But, your ancestor’s neighbors may also hold rich clues that can help you in your research. Many neighbors intermarried, sold land to each other, and even migrated to new locations together.

Besides looking at individuals listed on the same census page as your ancestor, remember to turn the page! Sometimes, a neighbor is not on the same page as your ancestor, but rather the pages before or after. Just because a person appears directly after your ancestor on the census rolls doesn’t necessarily mean they were neighbors. This only indicates the order in which the census taker visited the homes. You might also be able to identify close neighbors by looking at land ownership maps for the area. In this way, you can easily identify who lived near-by.

If you are having difficulty determining where your ancestors came from, researching the neighbors may give the answer. Many neighbors migrated together. Always check at least one page before your ancestor and one page after your ancestor in any given census.

census_ledford_together

Creating a FAN club with Neighbors

Genealogy Fan Club: Comments and More Resources

There are likely dozens of successful ways for creating a FAN club for your ancestor. We would love to hear your examples in the comments below. For even more ways to break through those genealogy brick walls, enjoy these links below.

Read our article Solve Your Genealogy Brick Walls: 3 Tips for Breaking Through!

Genealogy Gems - Family History Podcast and WebsiteEven better: Genealogy Gems Premium Members can watch Lisa’s one hour video class Brick Walls: Cold Case Investigative Techniques. In this video you’ll not only learn how to apply criminal cold case strategies to your brick walls, but you’ll also get loads of fresh and innovative ideas you can try right away. If you are not a Premium Member yet, learn more about becoming a Genealogy Gems Premium Member here.

GenealogyDOTcoach Online Service for the Fledgling Genealogist

Everyone can use a great coach and a new genealogy service is striving to fill that need! GenealogyDOTcoach (SM) is a new online service matching up professional genealogists (called Genealogy Coaches) with people who want to have all the excitement of making their own family history discoveries, but need a little personalized help.

GenealogyDotCoach_FeatureImage

Janet Hovorka, co-founder of the new website, says, “With do-it-yourself sites like Ancestry.com and FamilySearch.org it has become so easy for anyone to start climbing their family tree. But sometimes people get a little stuck in the process.”

In the past, genealogy hobbyists in trouble were either doomed to find another line to work on or hire a 10 or 20 hour research package from a professional genealogist. Many of us can’t afford the high prices of a professional researcher. Besides, what we really want is just a little help. GenealogyDOTcoach is striving to fill that need.

GenealogyDOTcoach: How it Works

As of today, there are 25 coaches across 47 genealogical categories. Areas of expertise include: getting started, DNA, writing a research plan, and even document translation. Many levels and types of expertise are found in these Genealogy Coaches with hopes of finding the right match for your specific need. The impressive list of coaches include some of the most well-known genealogists in the industry.

GenealogyDotCoach_1
At the genealogyDOTcoach website, you can select a topic like Jewish Genealogy, Software Assistance, or DNA (and there are tons more). Once you have selected your category, you will see a list of coaches that specialize in that topic. Sessions can be scheduled with your genealogy coach for 15, 30, or 60 minutes at a predetermined rate.

Before your coaching session, an email link is sent that allows you to log-in to a private chat room. You will meet your coach face to face, via video chat, and be able to share screens and documents.

We Want to Hear From You

please leave a commentSo, what do you think? Is this something that interests you?

We would love to hear what you think about this new service in the comment section below.

Thanks for reading, friends!

Finding Widows, Disappearing Husbands, and Lost Relatives

Finding Widows

Great-grandma may be listed as a widow in the 1900 federal census…but she might not actually be a widow after all. Women in the past sometimes claimed widowhood to protect their family’s good name. A recent reader’s question prompted this post for sharing some tips to finding widows, disappearing husbands, and lost relatives.

Widow or Not?

Genealogy Gems reader, Mary, wrote us the following comment:

“My grandmother Kitty’s first husband was Robert Lee Jeffries. They married in 1887 and had 4 or 5 children. He died in the very early 1900’s. She later remarried my grandfather, John, and they had four children together. All this took place in Hardin County, Kentucky. I cannot find when, where, or how her first husband died, or where he is buried. Can you help me?”

I think we can give Mary some tips to help her find Robert. As you read along, consider how these same tips and techniques could help you in finding widows, disappearing husbands, and lost relatives.

Finding Death Records in the Early 1900s

A death record is typically a good way to determine where someone went. If you can locate a death record for your lost individual, they aren’t lost anymore! Finding death records for the time period that Mary is asking about isn’t usually too difficult, unless there has been a record loss for that county. By doing a quick check on FamilySearch wiki for Hardin County, Kentucky, I learned that many records between 1852 and 1911 are missing, including some of the death records. That may be why Mary wasn’t able to find one.

When a death record can’t be found, there are many alternatives that we can exhaust. Cemetery records, newspaper obituaries, and probate records are just a few suggestions. But before we move into alternative records, something caught my attention.

Misspelled Names

With a last name like “Jeffries,” there could be several ways to spell it. Jeffrys, Jefferies, Jeffres, and perhaps many more. What can you do when you have a name, first or last, that could be spelled so many different ways?

One suggestion is to search by each of the possible name spellings, but another tool is to use an asterisk or wildcard. The first part of the surname Jeffries is always the same: J e f f. Whether you are searching records at Ancestry, Findmypast, or MyHeritage, you can use an asterisk after the last “f” to indicate you are looking for any of the possible surname spellings.

DisappearingHusband_1

I didn’t find any great matches using the criteria you see in the image above, but I took off the death date range and Kitty’s name and found Bob Lee JeffERies living in his parents home in 1880 in Hardin County, Kentucky. Take a close look at this image:

DisappearingHusband_2

Do you see the mistake? If you look at the digital image of the census, it spells the surname as Jeffries, however the record is indexed as Jefferies. Not to mention that Robert Lee is recorded as Bob Lee. This combination of name differences will always cause a little hiccup in our search process. This is why it is so important to consider name spellings when searching for records.

Even though using an asterisk didn’t produce a death record, you can see how using a tip like this can help when searching for any records online.

Alternatives to Death Records

Like I mentioned before, Hardin county had some record losses. Just because their death records may have been lost or destroyed, doesn’t mean the probate records were.

Using FamilySearch.org, I used the browse option to search probate record books in Hardin county, Kentucky. I found a record dated 25 Apr 1893, in which Kitty wrote her own will. [1] She mentions Lucy (possibly Robert’s mother found in the 1880 census) and others by name. What is strange is there’s no mention of a husband. I wondered if perhaps husband Robert had died before 1893. Unfortunately, there was no Robert Jeffries (or any variation) in the previous record books and the record book that Kitty appeared in was the last one available online.

When no will can be found, that doesn’t mean there is not a probate record available. The next step would be to visit the Hardin County probate office or State Archives to see if there is an estate packet available for Robert.

An estate packet is typically filled with all sorts of genealogy goodies! Receipts, list of heirs, and affidavits may shed light on many a burning question for your targeted ancestor.

The Disappearing Husband

Sadly, not all husband’s leave their families due to their demise. In the past, it was sometimes easier and more appealing to call yourself a widow or widower when your spouse left you. Kitty wrote a will in 1893 and did not mention a husband. In 1900, she was living in her father’s house and her children were divided up among the relatives, including her in-laws. Could Robert have left Kitty and the children? There may only be one way to know for sure.

Kitty remarried. To do that, either Robert had to die or she would need to be divorced. Divorce records can sometimes be located on a county level or at a state archives. I gave Hardin County Clerk of Courts a call and found out that divorce records between the years of 1804 -1995 are held at the Kentucky Department of Libraries and Archives. Their website provided details to ordering several types of records, including divorce records.

Looking in All the Wrong Places

Sometimes, we are so focused on one area that we can’t see past the end of our noses! Many of our ancestors lived on the borders of other counties. Hardin County, Kentucky is especially unique. It borders not only eight other Kentucky counties, but it also borders Harrison County, Indiana. It’s always a good idea to branch out to these nearby locations when you are having trouble locating records.

A Re-cap

When struggling to find a record for any targeted ancestor, try the following:

  • Consider alternate name spellings and search for common nicknames.
  • When there has been a possible record loss, search for alternative records that may hold the information you are looking for.
  • Determine which counties/states your targeted location is bordering and search there for records as well.

Have you found a disappearing person or long, lost relative? If so, share with us (in the comment section below) your story and how you finally tracked the elusive person down. Maybe your story will help others still searching for that missing ancestor!

More Gems on Finding Missing Ancestors

How to Search Your Ancestors’ Other Spouses and Childrenmy ancestor in the newspaper news

6 Sources that May Name Your Ancestors’ Parents

How to Save Time and Find the Ancestors You Are Looking For


Article References

(1) “Kentucky, Probate Records, 1727-1990,” digital images online, FamilySearch (www.familysearch.org : accessed 10 Aug 2016); record for Kitty A. Jeffries, 1893; citing Will Records, Index, 1893-1915, Vol. G, page 12.

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