Ten years ago, Unclaimed Persons launched as a volunteer effort within the genealogical community to help coroners reunite unclaimed bodies with their families. Here’s what Unclaimed Persons has accomplished over the past decade–and how you can join the growing effort.
Thanks to Unclaimed Persons for sending us this press release.
Ten years ago this month, Unclaimed Persons online genealogical community was established to reunite deceased individuals’ remains with their families. A decade later, we celebrate this milestone anniversary and our members who help to ensure every life is worth remembering.
Unclaimed Persons began in June 2008 shortly after the airing of a video by the same name on RootsTelevision.com (you can watch it below). The program, which featured genealogist Megan Smolenyak and coroner investigators searching for two individuals’ next of kin, introduced its audience to a quietly growing epidemic of people going to their graves with no known relatives to claim them.
Following the video release, Megan was flooded with emails from other family historians offering their help. In response to this outpouring, she established Unclaimed Persons as a coordinated volunteer effort for genealogy sleuths to gather in a virtual setting and assist coroners and medical examiners in addressing this critical issue.
Over the past 10 years, Unclaimed Persons has logged 839 cases from 58 coroner and medical examiner agencies in 23 states and consistently maintains a 70% solve rate. Thank you to our members who have devoted countless hours to this effort and to the following volunteer leadership over the past decade for managing behind-the-scenes operations and juggling multiple cases at any given time:
Retired Directors – Linda Driver, Keri Maurus, Skip Murray
Retired Case Administrators – Dee Akard Welborn, Robert Baca, Marcia Bignall, Terry Elliott, Robin Geiger, Stephen Hall, Thomas MacEntee, Donna Martin-Netherton, Lorine McGinnis Schulze, Ana Oquendo-Pabón, Audrey Speelman, Kathy Then
Lacey Cooke, our Genealogy Gems Service Manager, has a degree in forensic anthropology. She’s witnessed first-hand the cold and lonely story of unclaimed persons. Click here to read about her personal experiences working in coroner’s offices and with human remains, and why that made her want to share the Unclaimed Persons effort with everyone.
During this giving season, why not give back to the community of global genealogy lovers who quietly and continually enrich our family history research? Here are 4 ways to pay it forward in genealogy from the comfort of wherever you are! One gem you may not have heard of: the British Library’s project to index old maps.
4 Ways to Pay it Forward in Genealogy
1. Help with global gravestone research.
If you’re like me, you’ve probably discovered the final resting places of many an ancestor–perhaps along with important biographical data and even additional relatives–with the help of websites such as BillionGraves and Find A Grave.
BillionGraves says it’s “the world′s largest resource for searchable GPS cemetery data, and is growing bigger and better every day.” Its volunteers take GPS-tagged pictures of headstones in cemeteries around the world and transcribe them for their free searchable database.
How you can help:
Image headstones: download the free app to your smartphone from the App Store or Google Play. Take images of headstones in cemeteries you visit, whether it’s your own ancestor’s burial place or a local graveyard.
Transcribe personal information found on gravestone images. You can transcribe the images you take or you can visit the site and transcribe images that someone else has uploaded. Click here to get started.
Upload additional source documentation to BillionGraves tombstone images, such as obituaries, cemetery records, and the like. You’ll make these virtual gravestone sites even more genealogically valuable! Click here to learn more.
Find A Grave has a slightly different model for collecting global gravestone data. Here you can create free memorial pages for ancestors, which “generally include birth, death, and burial information and may include pictures, biographies, family information, and more.” You can also upload your own headstone images and transcribe them (or someone else’s images), and you can even upload a spreadsheet of cemetery burials you may have already transcribed.
Who’s behind Find A Grave? It’s owned by subscription website Ancestry.com, but it’s a separate, free site powered by volunteers: “Thousands of contributors submit new listings, updates, corrections, photographs and virtual flowers every hour. The site simply wouldn’t exist without the million+ contributors.”
Find A Grave has recently updated its site to make it more secure, faster, easier to use, and accessible to new devices and other languages. More than 100 million graves from over half a million cemeteries worldwide are already searchable at the site. To get started, download the Find A Grave app at Google Play or the App Store, or just visit the website.
2. Transcribe old documents and maps.
Millions–even billions–of digital images of old documents contain genealogical clues, but those names, dates, and places need to be extracted from those image files before they become easily searchable. Transcribing that information is also known in genealogy circles as indexing (or creating indexes). Here are four places to contribute your indexing skills:
FamilySearch Indexing. Thousands of you have likely participated in this best-known volunteer record transcription project out there. (We blogged about it recently in honor of their worldwide weekend indexing event.) Their indexing platform recently became fully cloud-based, so you can index more easily on your computer or mobile device. Volunteers are especially needed right now who can read Spanish, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Russian, Japanese, Polish, Swedish, and Dutch.
British Library Georeferencing Project. The British Library is recruiting volunteers to help geo-reference thousands of old maps that are already online. Geo-referencing, or geotagging, means assigning geographic reference points (longitude, latitude) to points on a map image. Doing this with old maps allows them to be linked to their modern-day locations, allowing us to compare the past and present (as Lisa teaches about in her free Google Earth video class). Over 8,000 maps have already been “placed” by participants (and subsequently checked for accuracy and approved by their panel of expert reviewers). The latest phase of the project includes 50,000 maps, mostly 19th-century maps from books published in Europe. The British Library says that “some places have changed significantly or disappeared completely,” increasing both the intriguing challenges for volunteers and the value to those who will benefit from their map sleuthing skills.
Ancestry World Archives Project. “The Ancestry World Archives Project is thousands of volunteers from around the world with a passion for genealogy and a desire to help others discover their roots,” says the project home page. “And all it takes is a computer, some basic software we provide and a little of your time.” Even though Ancestry.com itself is a subscription website, any records indexed through the Ancestry World Archives Project remain free to search on the site.
Here’s a screenshot of their current projects (click on it to visit the site):
National Archives Citizen Archivist Program. “A Citizen Archivist is a virtual volunteer that helps the U.S. National Archives increase the online access to their historical records,” reports Melissa Barker in a recent blog post. “This is done by crowdsourcing metadata about their records through tagging, transcribing, and adding comments to the U.S. National Archives catalog.” Click here to read the full article and get started.
3. Reunite heirlooms with long-lost relatives.
Probably millions of “lost” family items are out there: in flea markets, second-hand shops, online auction listings, perhaps even your own closets or attics. Genealogy Gems has reported many times in the past about genealogy heroes who claim these “orphaned heirlooms” just long enough to research and contact living relatives who would love to find them.
Whether it’s a family bible, an old marriage certificate in a dusty frame, a fading photo album, or a pile of old letters, each “orphaned heirloom” is unique–and so is the experience of tracking down its family and reuniting them. Here are several stories to inspire your next visit to eBay or a secondhand shop:
“Many people are aware that it can be a real challenge when a coroner obtains a John or Jane Doe, an unidentified person,” writes Lacey Cooke, Genealogy Gems service manager, who has a forensic anthropology degree. “It presents the difficult task of identifying the person. But few people know that in fact the even bigger problem consuming morgues today is unclaimed persons, rather than unidentified ones: individuals who have passed but with no trace of living relatives to come and claim them.”
Click on one of the opportunities above–or tell us about one you’ve tried–to give back to your genealogy community this season. This largely-invisible community is all around us and enriches all our efforts, from late-night research sessions by ourselves (in records indexed by volunteers!) to local societies who host classes that inspire us or who answer our obituary inquiries and Facebook posts about their locales. If you are already one of those volunteers, THANK YOU. You are a gem and we here at Genealogy Gems are grateful for you.
P.S. You can also “pay it forward” by sharing free content like this from our website with your genealogy friends and society members. Why not link to this post on social media or in an email and challenge those you know to do good in the genealogy world?
The National Archives Citizen Archivist program is recruiting help to tag, transcribe, and comment on records in the U.S. National Archives catalog. This is a great way for genealogy volunteers to help others discover their family history in the National Archives and learn for themselves what’s there.
The National Archives Citizen Archivist Program
Have you heard? The U.S. National Archives is looking for Citizen Archivists! What is a Citizen Archivist, you ask? A Citizen Archivist is a virtual volunteer that helps the U.S. National Archives increase the online access to their historical records. This is done by crowdsourcing metadata about their records through tagging, transcribing, and adding comments to the U.S. National Archives catalog.
As a Citizen Archivist, you will be volunteering your time to make historical and genealogical records more accessible to the general researching public to help them with their research. This could include genealogists, historians, writers, and other researchers that will benefit from your volunteer work. And who knows, maybe you will find records that belong to your ancestors!
How to Get Started as a National Archives Citizen Archivist
First, you will need to go to the “Citizen Archivist Dashboard” at the U.S. National Archives website. Once there, you will need to register to be a Citizen Archivist (see the screenshot on the right for where to click). Registration is free but you do need this account to be able to contribute to the project. Once you are registered and logged in, you can then navigate to the catalog and choose records from the curated missions.
The “missions” are groups of records that need transcribing or tagging to help the records be more accessible to researchers working online. Some of the missions that are needing transcribing are “Fugitive Slave Case Files,” “Native American Reservations,” and “The Truman-Churchill Telegrams,” just to name a few. New missions are added to the site regularly, so be sure to check back often to see what is new that you would like to work on.
Who Can Contribute as a Citizen Archivist?
Anyone who has a computer and the willingness to volunteer time to this project can contribute. You do not need to commit to any amount of time; you can work at your own pace as you have the extra time. There is even a support community available through the “History Hub” that can answer your questions as you work through the records. (You can click on that at the bottom of the list shown in the screenshot above.)
So, if you have some time on your hands and want to help make historical and genealogical records more accessible online, why not become a Citizen Archivist today? Click here to get started–or click below to read more ideas about how to give back to the genealogy community.
You’re invited to participate in a global FamilySearch indexing event! Join thousands of volunteers worldwide October 20-22, 2017 as they index historical records that will help genealogists (maybe you) climb your family tree. If you can index in another language, you have a VIP invitation–your skills are especially needed.
This coming weekend, FamilySearch is throwing its annual global indexing party: a three-day event designed to get genealogists away from their own database searches for just long enough to contribute to building those databases. It’s the Worldwide FamilySearch Indexing Event, and it runs October 20–22, 2017.
What is FamilySearch indexing?
Indexing is the process of extracting ancestral information from the world’s historical documents and putting them into online databases to help researchers find their ancestors in them more easily.
Here’s a quick video that illustrates the process (it’s a super cute video):
Why Is There a FamilySearch Indexing Event?
FamilySearch runs the world’s best-known volunteer online indexing system. This system has helped tens of thousands of volunteers index millions of names that are now searchable for free on FamilySearch.org and other websites. The annual three-day FamilySearch indexing event concentrates the year-round efforts of indexers into an energetic burst of activity. It also shines a light on the important service performed by FamilySearch indexers and attracts new (and lapsed) helpers to the cause.
Last year’s event galvanized over 100,000 volunteers, who indexed more than 10 million historic records in the three-day period. A FamilySearch representative stated, “From its beginning on Thursday in Southeast Asia and Australia to its conclusion Sunday night in the Pacific, the event attracted a wide range of participants. Volunteers contributed online from home or participated in locally organized events from Zurich, Switzerland, to the Rocky Mountains in the United States.”
Indexing volunteers with non-English language skills are particularly needed at this time. Over 200 FamilySearch digital camera teams are currently photographing historic records from non-English speaking countries. The effort has created a huge need and opportunity for indexers to make these records freely searchable online.
Volunteers can choose from projects of interest from all over the world and in several languages: English, Spanish, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Russian, Japanese, Polish, Swedish, and Dutch.
What’s New at This Year’s FamilySearch Indexing Event?
This year, the FamilySearch indexing portal became entirely cloud-based, a step forward in this increasingly mobile world. Now you can index on-the-go on your tablet or phone as well as at your computer. You can also modify the layout of your dashboard based on personal preferences, set and track individual goals, and even create groups with friends (or others interested in working on a common project, such as your society members).
RSVP for the FamilySearch Indexing Event
This year’s FamilySearch indexing event has a dedicated webpage where you can RSVP and learn more. All you need to begin indexing is a FamilySearch.org account and access to the internet. (And for this event, a little bit of time between October 20-22, 2017.)
Learn more about FamilySearch Historical Records in the Genealogy Gems Podcast
David Ouimette is known to his FamilySearch colleagues as “the Indiana Jones of genealogy” because of his globe-trotting adventures in discovering historical record treasures. Hear from him in the newest free episode of Lisa Louise Cooke’s Genealogy Gems Podcast. Click here to listen!
Trace your British Isles genealogy! This week we report on new genealogy records online for England, Scotland, and Ireland. Read about WWI weekly casualty lists, free census records at FreeCen, English and Scottish burials, Scottish poorhouse–and a free British Newspaper Archive webinar on learning about migration and travel in old newspapers.
British Isles Genealogy: Free and Fee Records Now Online
NEW! Free UK census records website
The same team of volunteers who bring us FreeBMD and FreeREG have now launched FreeCEN, a free website offering free-to-search 19th-century UK censuses. “Transcribed entirely by volunteers, we have more than 32 million individuals available on our website that anyone can search without having to create an account,” states a press release. “FreeCEN2 also brings with it a host of improvements for existing and future volunteers, such as a members sign-in area and brand new messaging system.” NOTE: This site may not be comprehensive for every kind of record you’re looking for. But it’s free, and definitely worth exploring, whether you want to search its collections or volunteer to help add to them.
England burial records: Staffordshire, Lincolnshire
Findmypast.com subscribers can now access over 127,000 entries in its Staffordshire Monumental Inscriptions, providing information on burials in “168 churchyards, burial grounds, and cemeteries throughout the county. This record sets can help you discover an ancestor’s birth date, death date, and residence, as well as the name of other family members such as parents, spouse, or children.”
About 90,000 new records have been added to Findmypast’s Lincolnshire Burials 1754-1812, which now totals over 1.5 million records covering over 300 locations across the county. For each person, you might find age at death, birth year, burial date, and location.
Scotland, West Lothian
Findmypast.com has published new records relating to West Lothian, located in the south of Scotland. According to the site, the area was “known as Linlithgowshire until 1921. The county was home to the Scottish monarchs of the 15th and 16th centuries.”
Linlithgowshire Poorhouse records, with details on more than 15,000 people admitted between 1859 and 1912. “The collection contains a variety of different record types including admissions, deaths, discharges, and sick rolls that will reveal your ancestor’s admission date, behavior during their stay, previous residence, and more.”
Burials, 1860-1975. Over 87,000 transcripts of burial records spanning 115 years. “Each transcript that will reveal the date of your ancestor’s burial, the location of their grave, their occupation, residence, death date, and in some cases the names of additional family members.”
WWI Weekly Casualty List at The British Newspaper Archive
The historically significant Weekly Casualty List (1917-1918, published by the War Office & Air Ministry) lists names of soldiers who were killed, wounded, or declared missing during the First World War. The War Office and Air Ministry updated and published the lists weekly and our current holdings cover the latter years of the conflict. Over 2,400 digitized pages are published in this collection.
More new collections at the British Newspaper Archive
East Sussex: For Brighton Gazette, additions include 1871-1910, for total coverage for this scenic seaside town now spanning 1825-1910.
Hertfordshire: New issues have been added for Herts & Cambs Reporter & Royston Crow, covering the town of Royston. Available years now include 1878-1882, 1884-1888, 1890-1898, and 1900-1910.
Lancashire: The Nelson Leader coverage now spans 1920-1957; it was published in Nelson.
Norfolk: Another new collection is Eastern Daily Press from Norwich. It’s already got nearly 40,000 pages of coverage for 1870-1876, 1878-1890, 1896, 1899, and 1901-1909.
Tynemouth, Tyne, and Wear: Now you can read Shields Daily News from 1870-1957, with the recent addition of pages for 1938-1957.
Warwickshire: New on the site is Alcester Chronicle, with over 17,000 digitized pages covering 1869-1888 and 1890-1910.
West Yorkshire: The years 1880-1888 have been added for The Knaresborough Post, for total coverage now spanning 1878-1912 (with a few little gaps).
Ireland, Tyrone: The Limerick Chronicle (1832-1868) gives historical news from the western seaboard of Ireland and their holdings cover both the pre- and post-Famine periods. The Mid-Ulster Mail was published in County Tyrone, with current coverage offering insight into the period before the Great War.
Free webinar from The British Newspaper Archive: News coverage of immigration and travel
“The topic of emigration is well covered by the newspapers. For instance, you can easily find advertisements that might have enticed your ancestor to leave Britain or Ireland to seek a new life in Australia or America. In the 1840s, The Limerick Chronicle carried advertisements for ‘fast ships’ and information booklets designed to assist immigrants travelling to the United States.” -The British Newspaper Archive
When the recent press release from the Unclaimed Persons project crossed my desk, it jumped out at me in a very personal way. I majored in Forensic Anthropology (the study of human remains) in college, and was no stranger to coroner’s offices. I’ve witnessed first-hand what happens when a decedent enters a morgue, and it’s a very cold (literally!) and lonely experience. My passion for forensics stemmed from a desire to ensure that families wouldn’t be left wondering what happened to their loved ones. The Unclaimed Persons project focuses on the other side of that mission: ensuring that the loved one is reunited with their family and laid to rest with dignity.
From an Unclaimed Persons project press release:
Alone in death and tucked away on dark shelves or cold gurneys in morgues across the country, thousands of deceased individuals whose names are known to coroners, medical examiners, and a handful of friends have no known family members to claim their remains. Homelessness, mental illness, long-term estrangement, deaths of all apparent next of kin, and other circumstances have severed familial connections. Ever-increasing caseloads and shrinking budgets make it nearly impossible for medical examiners, coroners, and investigators who cannot quickly identify family to find deceased individuals’ relatives without help.
Unclaimed Persons project uses genealogy skills
Many people are aware that it can be a real challenge when a coroner obtains a John or Jane Doe, an unidentified person. It presents the difficult task of identifying the person. But few people know that in fact the even bigger problem consuming morgues today is unclaimed persons, rather than unidentified ones: individuals who have passed but with no trace of living relatives to come and claim them. Thus, the Unclaimed Persons project was born! In 2008, genealogy author, speaker, consultant, and on-air expert Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak started this organization online. She shares how she got started working with these cases in this video:
“My first time that I worked with a coroner’s office was actually sort of an accident. I was just reading the newspaper and I tripped across this article about the situation of these people who are essentially unclaimed people, people whose next-of-kin just can’t be found. And I was reading about a couple of the actual examples they gave, and one of them made a fleeting reference to a particular case where they actually had the fellow’s family bible. And that’s what made the connection for me that ‘Aha! Maybe I can use the genealogical sleuthing skills to find these families as well.” -Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak
After assisting two coroners with unclaimed persons cases, Megan founded a Facebook group with the goal of solving even more unclaimed persons cases. The online community of volunteer researchers joined forces with medical examiners, forensic investigators, and coroners to help reunite families and bring closure so that the dead can finally be laid to rest.
Unclaimed Persons is now celebrating their 9th anniversary with the launch of their new website, and to date have solved 471 cases with a 70% solve rate! But the unclaimed epidemic in morgues persists, and Unclaimed Persons is always recruiting more volunteers. As it turns out, family history enthusiasts make some of the best detectives in these cases! Genealogists combine classic sleuthing skills with their knowledge of family record keeping to track down even the most elusive relatives. This is a wonderful opportunity for genealogists to use their specialized training for an even greater good.
500+ veterans escorted the unclaimed remains of seven Iowa veterans to their final resting place at the Iowa Veterans Cemetery, Van Meter, Iowa, in 2009. U.S. Navy photo by Senior Chief Petty Officer Gary Ward
How you can help the Unclaimed Person project
You don’t have to be a seasoned genealogist to be a volunteer! Anyone with an interest is welcome to join. Visit https://unclaimed-persons.org/ to register as a member. You will need to complete a member profile with your basic information, and agree to Unclaimed Persons Forum Rules. Unclaimed Persons encourages researchers to have access to tools such as Ancestry.com, GenealogyBank.com, historical newspaper archives, and other online subscriptions related to genealogical research. However, there are many publicly available online databases that can also help with your research.
As an Unclaimed Persons volunteer, one of the most important things to know and adhere to is that researchers should not contact identified family members, nor should they contact coroners directly. Each case is assigned a case manager, and all discoveries should be sent directly to them. This may seem like an unnecessary step, but in fact it ensures that coroners, medical examiners, and investigators are not inundated or hindered with duplicate information and can continue to manage their daily workloads.
And Unclaimed Persons feels very strongly that contacting even one family in error would jeopardize the high standards and reputation of the organization. While the ultimate goal is bring closure for family members, the primary focus of Unclaimed Persons is to assist these agencies with the difficult task of locating them, rather than to be the ones delivering the news directly. But for your own sense of closure, Unclaimed Persons will announce on their Facebook group page and their online forum when a case has been solved so you and the other volunteers can celebrate together!
If you don’t have time or resources to help with research, you can still help Unclaimed Persons by ‘Liking’ their Facebook page and sharing the cases among the genealogy community. You can also follow Unclaimed Persons on social media for announcements of new cases where you may have information or experience that can help (specific locations, surnames, etc.).
Click here to learn more about how to become a volunteer member.