Show Notes: When you find family history information online you MUST make every effort to find the original genealogy record so that your family tree will be accurate! There are 5 reasons to find original records. I’ll explain what they are, and what to look for so that you get the most information possible for your family tree.
If you’re a genealogy beginner, this video will help you avoid a lot of problems. And if you’re an advanced genealogist, now is the time to fix things.
Records come in many forms. Many genealogy websites consider that each name that appears on a document is a “record” when they’re counting records. So, when you hear that 10 million records have been added to a website, it doesn’t necessarily mean that 10 million genealogical documents have been added. It oftentimes means that that’s the number of names that they’ve added.
One document could have a lot of names. In the case of a death certificate, it could have the name of the deceased, the name of the spouse, the name of the informant, and the names of the parents. Each one of those gets counted as a record.
Recently, MyHeritage announced they’ve added 78 million new records to their website. However, many of these records are simply transcriptions, they’re extracting the information from whatever the original source was. That information becomes searchable, and that’s terrific because they are great clues. So, sometimes when you go and look at the records themselves, it turns out that record really is just a transcription. There is no digital record to look at.
Sometimes the website doesn’t even tell you what the original record was. There will be clues, though. You can use those clues and run a search on those words. So, if it talks about a particular location, or type of record, or the name of the record, you could start searching online and find out where are those original records are actually held. Sometimes they are on another genealogy website. But a lot of times, and I’ve seen this more recently, they are publicly available records, oftentimes from governmental agencies. Very recently, we’ve been seeing more recent records that are just selected text. They may be records for people who just passed away a year or two ago.
There are a wide range of places where these types of records can come from. But if that genealogy website got its hands on the record, chances are you could too. And it’s really important to do that.
#2 What’s important to you might not have been prioritized for indexing.
The indexer is a person, or perhaps even an artificial intelligence machine, who has gone through the documents and extracted information and provided it in text form. Sometimes when you search on a genealogy website, all you’re getting is just that typed text, that transcription, of some of the key data from the original document.
I’ll tell you about one example in my family. I was looking at a 2x great grandmother back in Germany. Her name was Louise Leckzyk. She’s listed as Louise Nikolowski in the Ancestry record hint. Technically, that’s true, she was Louise Nikolowski at the time of the birth of her child. But if you pull up the original record, what you discover is she’s not listed as Louise Nikolowski on the record. She’s listed with her maiden name, which was usually the case in those old German church records. So that’s huge. We’ve talked about how challenging it can be to find maiden names here on the Genealogy Gems channel. So, we don’t want to miss any opportunity to get one. But if we had taken this record hint at face value, and just extracted that information, put it in our database, or attached it to our online family tree, and never looked at the original document, we would have completely missed her maiden name. And that maiden name is the key to finding the next generation, her parents.
#3 Not all information on a record is indexed.
It’s very common for large portions of information on a document not to be indexed. Here’s the reason for that: Indexing costs money. When a genealogy company takes a look at a new record collection they have some hard decisions to make. They have to decide which fields of information will be included in the indexing. Oftentimes, there will be several columns, as in a church record or a census record. The 1950 census was an example of this. There’s so much data that the company has to look at that and say, what do we think would be of the most value to our users? They then index those fields. They’ve got to pay to not only have them indexed, but potentially also reviewed human eyes, or AI. That all costs money.
So, there will inevitably be information that gets left off the index. That means that when you search the website you’re going to see the record result, and it can give you the impression that that is the complete record. But very often, it’s not the complete record. Tracking down and taking a look at the original digital scan of the record is the only way to know.
It’s possible that the records have not been digitally scanned. In the case of public government records, that information may have been typed into a database, not extracted from a digital image. There may not be a digital scanned image. It may be very possible that the only original is sitting in a courthouse or church basement somewhere. It’s also possible that the digital images are only available on a subscription website that you don’t subscribe to.
We need to do our best to try to track down the original document and take a look at it to see if there’s anything else that’s of value to us in our research that the indexers or the company just didn’t pick up on or didn’t spend the money to index.
#4 Different websites potentially have different digital scans of the same record.
Websites sometimes collaborate on acquiring and indexing records. In those cases, they might be working with the same digital images. But oftentimes, they create their own digital scans. That means that a record may be darker or lighter, or sharper or blurrier from one website to the next. So while you found the record on one website, another might have a copy that’s much easier to read.
Digital scanning has also come a long way over the years. Many genealogy sites now are looking at some of the earlier scans they did. They’re realizing that some are pretty low quality by today’s standards. They might determine that it’s worth going back and rescanning the record collection. This happened with some of the earliest census records that were digitized many years ago. It makes a lot of sense, because a lot of time has passed, and technology has certainly changed.
So even though you found information many years ago, it might be worth taking a second look if you have any questions about what’s on that document. You may find that that record is actually a newly digitized image on the same website, or you might find that it’s also available somewhere else.
A lot of the partnerships out there are with FamilySearch which is free. So, while you may have a paid subscription to a site like Ancestry or MyHeritage, if there’s anything that you’re questionable on, or you didn’t actually see the original document from one of those paid websites, head to FamilySearch.org. Run a search and see if they happen to have the digitized images. There’s a good chance they might, and it’s worth taking a look.
Sometimes the genealogy website will have tools that allow you to get a better look at the digitized document. Ancestry is a great example of this. On the digitized image page click the tool icon to open the Tools menu. One of my favorite tools is “Invert colors”. Click that button, and it will turn it into a negative image. Sometimes this allows words to pop out in a way that they were not as clearly visible in the normal view.
I downloaded a digital scan from a website several years ago, and it was hard to decipher. I did some searching and was able to find a clearer copy on another website.
#5 You can verify that the words were indexed accurately.
Reviewing a scan of the entire document provides you with a lot of examples of the handwriting of the person who made the entry. If you have any doubt about words or spelling, making comparisons with other entries can be extremely helpful.
When I first looked at a baptismal record of my 2x great grandmother’s son, I thought her surname was Lekcyzk. However, after seeing a different digital scan, I started to question that. Having the original record allows me to review the handwriting of the person who wrote these records. Comparing the handwriting of other entries on the page helped me determine that the swish at the top is the dotting of an eye that just had a bit more flourish. I also reconfirmed that the Z in the name is definitely a Z by comparing it to other Zs on the page.
Bonus Reason: You may have missed the second page.
Some records have more than one page, and it’s easy to miss them. If the indexer took information primarily off of the first page, it may not be obvious when you look at that page, that in fact, it’s a two-page (or more) document. More pages potentially means more valuable information!
It’s also possible that if you downloaded a document years ago when you first started doing genealogy, you might have missed the additional pages. Now that you’re a more experienced researcher, it would be worth going back and looking at particular types of records that are prone to having second pages. Examples of this are:
and probate records.
If you have single page records that fall in one of these categories saved to your computer, you might want to go back and do another search for them and check the images that come before and after that page to see if there are more gems to be found.
I hope I’ve convinced you to always make the effort to obtain and review original records for the information that you find while doing genealogy research online.
I’ll bet there’s even more reasons to do this, so I’m counting on you. Please leave a comment and let me know what you’ve found following these 5 reasons, and any additional reasons that you have.
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So, you think there might be a missing census page? Whether it’s a missing census or a missing family, my special guest, professional genealogist Kate Eakman from Legacy Tree Genealogists has strategies to help you figure it out. She has just the answers you need to find your ‘missing’ family.
A Genealogy Gems reader doing genealogy research in New Jersey has lost her family! Well not literally, but she can’t find them in the 1940 U.S. Census. Here’s the email I recently received from her:
I am having a problem finding my mother and grandparents in the 1940 census. My grandfather, William Charles Opfer, was born on October 15 1900. I can find him in the 1930 census living in Glouescter Township, (Unincorporated Grenloch) Camden County, New Jersey. He is living with his wife Kathryn (Katharine) Opfer and three children: William C Jr, Robert, and Nancy (my mother).
When I search the 1940 census on Ancestry nothing shows up. So I went to the government web site and converted the 1930 Enumeration District to the 1940 Enumeration District. The 1940 Enumeration Districts were 4-57, 4-58, and 4-61. I then went through all of the pages for each of the districts looking for William C. Opfer. I did this on Ancestry, Family Search, and NARA. No William C. Opfer.
I then went back to the 1930 census and looked at his neighbors. I searched for each of the 13 heads-of-household neighbors from the 1930 census. Two had moved 1940 and I found them. I could not find the other neighbors in the 1940 census. I am wondering if a page from the 1940 census did not get scanned? Is there somewhere else I could look?
Missing Census Answers from Kate Eakman, Legacy Tree Genealogists
First, let me say how impressed I am with this Gem’s research and her dedication to finding this census report. She has made some very thorough searches and performed a number of advanced genealogical techniques in her quest for the 1940 U.S. Census page. It hardly seems fair that all that work didn’t yield the success she surely earned.
The government website she referenced is the National Archives 1940 Census page. The use of the page “1930 Records Search” allowed her to simply locate her grandfather in the 1930 U.S. Census. Then, by clicking a few buttons, discover the corresponding enumeration districts (ED) for the 1930 ED in which he and his family lived: 4-57, 4-58, and 4-61.
I, too, have scrolled through page after page searching for that one elusive name and we know how tedious that task can be! Using three different sites was a good strategy and one that we employ ourselves here at Legacy Tree Genealogists. Different images might be easier or more difficult to read, although in the case of these three EDs, the copies seemed to be uniformly easy to read.
The first two EDs were for Blackwood, an unincorporated part of Camden County, New Jersey. The third one was for the Lakeland Tuberculosis Hospital, unlikely to have housed the entire family, but certainly worth looking through in case one Opfer was a patient there.
ED 4-58 had an interesting variation at the end of the report. The last two pages were not 15A and 15B, as would be expected, but were 61A and 61B. This indicates these households were enumerated at a later date than were their neighbors. Because federal law requires every household to be counted, and because not everyone was at home when the enumerator arrived, the enumerator had to return on a different day and attempt to gather the necessary information for those families. They were recorded separately, beginning with page 61A.
People living in hotels, trailer camps, and other places normally designed for single-night stays were enumerated a week after the initial enumeration and those pages are numbered beginning with 81A. Not every ED has a 61 or an 81 page, but if you see one, now you know why the page numbers suddenly changed so dramatically.
The writer’s use of Elizabeth Shown Mills’ FAN Club was an excellent idea, too. FAN, an acronym for Friends, Associates, and Neighbors, takes advantage of the fact that people, in general, tend to remain geographically close to the people they know. [Read more about this in our post, “The Genealogy FAN Club Principle Overcomes Genealogy Brick Walls“] If a portion of a community moves, they tend to move together and relocate in the same general area of their new location. Her instincts to use this tool were excellent, even if they did not produce the desired results. This falls under the heading of “reasonably exhaustive research” and should always be included when someone, or in this case something, can’t be found, but should be there.
The fact that the researcher was able to locate only two of those neighbors could be explained, in part, by the fact that so many were in their 60s, 70s, and even 90s in 1930. They simply may have passed away in the intervening ten years. Another explanation, particularly for the working families, is that the Great Depression caused many families to move in order to find employment.
This may have been true for the Opfers. We noticed in 1930, William was employed as a supervisor for Reading Transportation. While supervisors were important to the operation of any transportation company, it is possible William found himself unemployed, as was true for millions of other Americans. If that happened, he and his family could have moved anywhere in the United States in an effort to find work. Alternatively, William may have left to find work while Kathryn and the children lived by themselves in reduced circumstances, or with family or friends.
To this end, I searched for William and Kathryn, and then each of the three children individually, in the hope of locating one or more family members. Using the “less is more” strategy which is often an important part of genealogical research, I searched with and without the family members’ ages, places of birth, and other family member’s names. Because the surname “Opfer” might have been misheard by the enumerator or grossly misspelled, I even searched for the various members of the family with no surname. Since we did not know where the family may have lived between 1930 and 1944, we included all of New Jersey, Delaware (the home state of Kathryn), as well as neighboring Pennsylvania and New York in our searches. The lack of positive results meant we needed to expand our search to the Eastern seaboard, and then the entire United States.
We also identified the names of William’s and Kathryn’s parents, William and Sallie Opfer and Raymond and Corrine Mason, and searched their households and neighborhoods for William and Kathryn. They were not there. Walter, William’s younger brother, was not hosting the family, either.
The writer had asked if it was possible that a page from the 1940 U.S. Census did not get scanned. Since the 1940 census has only been available for four years, it is still possible, although not probable, that there are one or more pages missing unbeknownst to anyone. Our research revealed only a few pages from a couple EDs in Ohio and South Dakota that were missing from the FamilySearch collection. There is no indication anywhere that there are missing pages from New Jersey. In addition, the pages in the three possible EDs for the Opfers were all included and in the correct numerical order, with no indication of any missing pages at the end. Therefore, I think we must conclude that missing pages do not explain the Opfer family’s disappearance.
Other Databases to Help
There are two other databases which might provide some insight into the location of the Opfer family. The first is the set of 1942 World War II draft registration cards. All men between the ages of 18 and 65 were required to register for this draft. The draft registration cards would have included the address at which William lived in 1942; however, there was no card for a man named William Opfer (or with only the surname “Opfer”) born between 1895 and 1905.
The final search was the database of city directories. A poorly-indexed city directory reported the Opfers lived in Haddonfield, New Jersey in 1943, but there are two directories contained in the same book, and the listing was actually for 1947. It reported William and Katherine lived at 209 Washington Avenue with their children William and his wife, Robert, and Nancy. William’s brother, Walter, and his wife Edith lived nearby. Unfortunately, the search for them in 1940 revealed that 79-year-old widower William Pape lived at that address with his household servants who were not the Opfer’s.
The William Opfer family in Haddonfield, New Jersey in 1947.Photo courtesy Ancestry.
Although the turmoil and upheaval of the Great Depression meant families were scattered, and it would have been easy to miss enumerating many households in the mid-1930s, by 1940 the U.S. was recovering from the effects of the Depression. Some agencies, such as the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps), were in place to provide work for men. Many war-related industries on both coasts were revived by the Allies’ efforts to stop Hitler.
In other words, there should have been work and stability for the Opfer family by 1940, and they ought to have appeared in a census report. The evidence of the 1930 census and the 1947 city directory strongly suggest they remained in or close to New Jersey, but all of the efforts to locate them have failed to yield positive results.
One Last Scenario
One possible scenario which would explain the Opfers apparent absence from the 1940 census is a simple one: perhaps the family was in the process of moving from one location to another in the month of April when the census was enumerated. Although the census was supposed to be enumerated on 1 April, the reality is that it was simply impossible to knock on every door and obtain the necessary information in one day. Some enumeration districts were fully counted by the 4th of the month. Other places were not completed until the 30th. This was true even in the same town.
If the Opfers had moved across the street from 206 Washington Avenue to 209 Washington Avenue in Haddonfield, for instance, between the 5th and the 14th of April, they would have moved from one enumeration district to another. Because the 209 Washington Avenue address had been enumerated on 4 April, they would not have been counted in that new location. And, because the 206 Washington Avenue address was not enumerated until the 15th of the month, they would not have been included in that EDs census report. We have seen this happen in the reverse and a family was enumerated twice because they moved during the enumeration, so it certainly could have happened the other way around. This is the only explanation we can find to explain the absence of the Opfers from the 1940 U.S. Census.
More About Kate Eakman at Legacy Tree Genealogists and SAVE $100!
Kate Eakman grew up hearing Civil War stories at her father’s knee and fell in love with history and genealogy at an early age. With a master’s degree in history and over 20 years experience as a genealogist, Kate has worked her magic on hundreds of family trees and narratives.
Areas of expertise:
-Native American Genealogy
-U.S. Civil War & Victorian America
The team of expert genealogists at Legacy Tree Genealogists can help bust through your brick walls. They do the research and you enjoy the discoveries!
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