Lydia thinks her great-grandfather was murdered–perhaps even by her grandfather! Here’s some advice for her and everyone researching “cold cases” for criminal ancestors on your family tree.
I heard recently from Lydia with these intriguing questions:
My great great grandpa William John Gabriel Nelson disappeared one day, never coming home from work. It was family lore that he had been “shanghai’d.” But even as a child the story didn’t add up. [Through a] few other mentions of the account throughout the years, and recently reconnecting with cousins through Ancestry.com/DNA and your advice to just email DNA matches, I have a growing reason to believe my great-grandfather was murdered. An even bigger fear is that my grandfather may have been the one to do it.
All parties involved with this are now dead, so follow-up is impossible with them. But I’m wondering about contacting the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) or the library to determine if indeed there was a cold case, missing persons report or John Doe. Since this happened in the mid 1940’s, would I contact the LAPD or is this now a job for a historian?
As a citizen, Lydia can certainly contact the LAPD here. It might take a bit of persistence to get to the right person or resource. I would start by asking for how you can find out the status of a cold case from the year in question.
Here are 4 ways to follow up on your own criminal ancestors’ cold cases:
1. Look for cold case files online.
As I often say, all good searches start online because they will help you prepare to go offline. In other words, not everything is online, but searching online first will give you a lay of the land, revealing what is available, who to contact, and where to go in person. Start with a Google search such as LAPD cold cases. The search results include several good leads:
With a case like Lydia’s that is over 70 years old, I wouldn’t expect to pull it up in an online database (though you never know!) But I do see several sites here that provide phone numbers to gain access to those who can lead you in the right direction.
2. Search Google for clues.
Use Google’s powerful search technology to look for online mentions of the names, places, and dates of your particular case.
In Lydia’s case, she might begin with keywords relating to her great-grandfather’s disappearance, with his name, year, and the place he was last seen. Including descriptive keywords such as disappear, mystery, vanished or murder might also yield helpful results.
Newspapers in your ancestor’s hometown (or further afield) may have mentioned the incident. With a common name like William (or Bill) Nelson, you may need to weed out the overabundance of unwanted results you get. Let me show you how I did this in GenealogyBank, a popular genealogical newspaper website:
The initial results of searching GenealogyBank (above) for the terms William Nelson and Los Angeles brought up over 1,000 search results! (The red arrow points to the tally.) Since I don’t like wasting valuable research time on irrelevant results (who’s with me?!), I refined the search. I specified Nelson as a last name, William as a first name, Los Angeles as a keyword, and I added a date range: the decade during which he disappeared. Next, I limited my search to Los Angeles-area newspapers, shown below:
This search narrows results down to under 200: a robust number, but at least manageable to look through for relevant material.
I want to be able to use these same search parameters in the future, so I click Save My Search. The search now appears in My Folder for future reference.
4. Look for criminal records.
If you knew (or suspected) that a relative was prosecuted for a crime, it’s time to start looking for records relating to the criminal case. There may be several kinds:
In cases of suspicious death (where there was a body, unlike Lydia’s case), look for any surviving coroner’s records.
If a trial may have occurred, research the jurisdiction to find out what court would have handled it, and then look for files relating to the case.
If an ancestor may have served time, look for prison records. Genealogy GemsPremium podcast episode 29 is devoted to the topic of prison records.
Read this article about a woman who was researching not one but two mysterious deaths on her family tree.
Want to help investigators lay to rest their own cold cases?
Click here to read about the Unclaimed Persons Project and how you can help.
Here are the step-by-step instructions you need to know to effectively navigate the Dawes Applications for Native American research. Many American families have a tradition of Native American ancestry. Now through Nov. 15, 2016 Fold3 has made access to their Native American records collections free. Read on to gain a thorough knowledge of how to properly use these records and achieve research success! And sign up for our free Genealogy Gems newsletter for our upcoming posts on this important subject.
Dawes Applications for Native American Research
In 1893, an act of Congress approved the establishment of a commission to negotiate agreements with the Choctaw, Creek, Chickasaw, Seminole, and Cherokee Indian tribes. The commission became known as the Dawes commission. The commission was to divide tribal land into plots, which were then divided among the members of the tribe. The Commission either accepted or rejected applicants for tribal membership based on whether the tribal government had previously recognized the applicant as a member of the tribe. Applicants were categorized as Citizens by Blood, Citizens by Marriage, Minor Citizens by Blood, New Born Citizens by Blood, Freedmen (African Americans formerly enslaved by tribal members,) New Born Freedmen, and Minor Freedman.
Researching the Dawes Packets is tricky. One problem arises when researchers find their family members in an index and assume that means their family was a legitimate member of a tribe. That is not the case. You will find doubtful or even rejectedapplications as well.
The good news is that in applying, our ancestors provided lots of genealogically valuable details of their birth, residences, and family ties.
Let’s see how to use this special collection.
Dawes Packets are Listed By Application Number
It would take forever to go through the applications one by one to find your ancestor. You really need to check an index first, but Fold3 doesn’t have the index for the Dawes Packets collection available…at least as far as I have found.
Now, search for your targeted ancestor by name. In my example, I am going to search for David O. Scott.
The results indicate that David O. Scott appears in two entries. One entry gives the number of #9446 and the other is #616. I can view each of these records directly from Ancestry. The first image you see is a jacket cover, so just click the right arrow key to scroll through the digital pages contained in David’s file.
Remember, if you don’t have access to Ancestry.com, many local libraries and family history centers have free access for patrons. But, we are talking about using Fold3, so let’s pop back over there.
Go back to Fold3.com to access their Native American records. You will do this by clicking on Browse at the top of the Fold3 homepage. Next, scroll through the options and choose Non-Military Records. A new list of options will appear and you will click on Native American Collections, then Dawes Packets. The Dawes Packets that appear here on Fold3.com are first broke down into tribe, then by number.
David O. Scott’s search on Ancestry listed him as Cherokee, so I want to choose that tribe. One of his numbers was #616.
Did you notice the numbers have a “D” in front of them? These are the applications deemed “doubtful.” If you scroll down, the letter changes to “R.” These applications were rejected. We don’t know if David’s number 616 is in the doubtful category or the rejected category, so we will check both.
David’s #616 matches the D616 and now I know that his application was marked doubtful. David’s pages of information were packed with genealogical detail like family names, dates, and residences.
The 1896 Applications
Here’s another tip: Your ancestor may have applied in the first wave of applications submitted in 1896. Those applications were later deemed invalid and thrown out, but wow…you don’t want to overlook them! Whether your ancestor applied again in 1898 and you already found their Dawes Packet on Fold3, try looking at this collection as well.
The research center at the Oklahoma Historical Society webpage allows you to search the 1896 overturned applications index for free. I typed in the name of my third great-grandfather, Jacob Cole.
You can also search by tribe, however, I suggest you do not do that. Sometimes, individuals actually applied to more than one tribe because they were not sure which tribe they might belong to. By adding that criteria, you may miss your ancestor’s application all together.
Only one result appeared for Jacob Cole. On this result, you notice the tribe affiliation as Cherokee and the case/application number of 639. I will need that tribe and number to find the application at Fold3. [Note: As I mentioned earlier, this index does not tell me if Jacob’s application was accepted or rejected, but it really doesn’t matter because these applications were deemed invalid anyway.]
You won’t find Jacob’s overturned application of 1896 on Fold3 at this time, but it is available at Ancestry.
Where Can I find Overturned Applications for 1896?
Overturned applications from 1896 are still very valuable records. They can be found at the National Archives and Records Administration in Washington D.C., or at Ancestry.com.
Let’s look at Ancestry. Once at the homepage, click Search at the top, then choose Card Catalog from the pull-down options.
This next step is a bit tricky. You will be directed to a page that allows you to seemingly search for your targeted ancestor’s application. But, the search only searches an index for the applications. To find the entire application packet, you need to browse the microfilm by hand.
To do that, look over to the far right where it says Browse this collection. Choose from the drop-down menu which tribe your ancestor applied to…so, I will choose Cherokee Applications. Then, choose the roll number based on the application number of the packet. I can determine the correct roll number because Jacob’s application number was 639 and Roll 25 includes all applications between the numbers of 486 and 681.
Click ALL and a digital image of the microfilm pops up. You will need to browse image-by-image until you find your ancestor’s application number. Be patient. With more than 1800 images, it will take some time.
[Special Note: On the very last roll of microfilm, Roll 54, there are some miscellaneous files and applications that were received past the application deadline. These records were not included in the Master Index. If you did not find your targeted ancestor in the Master Index, check these miscellaneous records.]
I found Jacob’s application on digital image number 1405. His application packet was nine pages long. I learned the ages and names of his current wife and children, how he believes he is Cherokee through the blood of his grandfather, Hawk Bowman, and I read two witness statements about Jacob and his family.
In particular, because this record was made in the 1890s, I was able to learn of two daughters that I had never known about. Martha had been born after the 1880 census and married before 1900, never having appeared with her father in a census. The second daughter, Mary J., had been born in 1895 and died before 1900, also never appearing with her family in a census record.
More on Native American Research
We will be creating further blog posts regarding each of the Native American collection sets at Fold3.com. We want you to be able to take advantage of this awesome opportunity to view the records for free for this limited time. In the meantime, be sure to read this how-to post on using Eastern Cherokee Applications: Eastern Cherokee Applications for Native American Research
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!
You will find the complete show notes for the topic discussed in this episode at the Elevenses with Lisa show notes page here.
Google Books is a free online catalog of over 25 million books, 10 million of which are digitized and searchable. While you would expect to find books at Google Books, you may be surprised to discover there it also includes many other types of published materials. In this episode I’ll explain how to find 10 of my favorite surprising items at Google Books.
Click below to listen:
Learn More About Google Books for Genealogy
My book includes everything you need to know about improving your Google searches in Google Books:
Cemetery research is a crucial family history skill. Tombstones are monuments to our ancestors lives and may have key genealogical clues engraved in the stone. Follow these four steps to finding your ancestors’ burial places and the records that complement them.
Many of my ancestors are buried just two miles from my house in Round Hill Cemetery in Marion, Virginia. I drive by the cemetery each day, as I take my daughters to school. I never pass by without glancing up at the hallowed ground which holds the remains of those who came before me. The sun perfectly illuminates their resting place each morning and a majestic tree stands at the very top of the hill–a living monument to the lives they led in the town where I now raise my own family.
It is an emotional experience to stand in the place where an ancestor’s remains have been laid to rest.
Each time I visit the grave of my grandma, I have a vision of a family standing around a casket on a bitter cold day in March. It was a just few days before the official start of spring, but it was the dead of winter to me. That ground is sacred to me, now.
Each time I visit, I am transported back in time to that day. A wound is re-opened for a moment, but the moment is fleeting because I quickly remember her life, not her death.
I remember the stories she told, the service her hands rendered to her family and, most importantly, the love that transcends time and even the icy grip of death. Death truly loses its “sting” as we stand before a monument of stone and see beyond to the life it represents. Scenes like this one have played out at each grave.
I am reminded of this quote from Fear Nothing, a Dean Koontz book, whenever I visit the cemetery:
“The trunks of six giant oaks rise like columns supporting a ceiling formed by their interlocking crowns. In the quiet space below, is laid out an aisle similar to those in any library. The gravestones are like rows of books bearing the names of those whose names have been blotted from the pages of life; who have been forgotten elsewhere but are remembered here.”
I have often gone to my ancestors’ resting places to take pictures of headstones and search for relatives I may have missed in the past. It seems like each time I visit, I notice something new.
This library of marble holds many clues that have helped me break down brick walls in my family history research. These clues have been there, etched in stone, for decades. It wasn’t until I recognized how to read the clues that I began to understand the importance of cemeteries in family history research.
These resting places have become much more to me than merely a place to go and offer a bouquet of flowers. There are answers waiting to be discovered. The key to getting the answers is knowing which questions to ask.
In my experience, the best genealogists are not the ones with the best cameras, the best software, or the best gadgets–they are the ones with the best questions.
Curiosity is the most important tool to the successful genealogist. The next time you find yourself in a library of marble, take a few moments to let your curiosity run wild. Ask yourself:
“Who are the people surrounding my family members?
What are their stories?
What do the etchings on their headstones mean?”
That curiosity will lead to the most remarkable discoveries and you will see for yourself how a piece of marble truly can break down a brick wall.
Below I’ve outlined the steps for finding family cemeteries and which questions you should be asking when you get there. Get inspired by my own examples of breaking down brick walls, and implement these methods I used for your own success!
Cemetery research step #1: Identify the cemetery
The first step in cemetery research is to identify the name of the cemetery where an ancestor was buried.
The best places to start looking are death certificates, funeral home records and obituaries. Each one of these records should contain the name of the cemetery where a family member was buried.
We sometimes fail to look beyond the names and dates on death certificates. If we get in the habit of taking the time to absorb all of the information on these important documents, we will find genealogical treasure.
Sometimes, the death certificate will not give us the name of the cemetery.
This was the case with my great-grandmother, Mollie Weimer Overbay. I was frustrated to see that the death certificate only indicated that she was buried, as opposed to cremated or removed to another location. While the certificate did not provide me with the name of a cemetery, it did offer the name of the funeral director: W.B. Seaver.
Luckily, I was able to follow this lead to the local funeral home. Within their records, I discovered that she was buried in Round Hill Cemetery, along with many of my other ancestors.
Cemetery research step #2: Locate the cemetery
Once you have located the name of the cemetery, several resources can guide you to its location.
Three helpful websites are listed below. Which you choose may depend on personal preference or familiarity but also on which site seems to have more records for the locales of most interest to you.
This website allows you to search for cemeteries all over the world.
At the home page, click on the Cemeteries tab (#1, below).
Then enter the name or location of the cemetery (#2). In the screenshot below, you can see part of the Google Maps interface that shows you the exact location of the cemetery, should you want to visit in person:
Find A Grave also has pictures of many of the headstones located within cemeteries.
2. Billion Graves allows users to collect photos of headstones by using an iPhone/Android camera app.
The app, available on Google Play and the App Store (for iPhone and iPad), tags the photos with the GPS location and, essentially, maps the cemetery as headstones are added.
Search for cemetery locations using the Billion Graves app or on the website by selecting the “Cemetery Search” option and then entering the name of the cemetery or a known address (to see it on Google Maps):
From the home page, scroll down just a little until you see “Browse Cemetery Records by Region.” This can be especially helpful if you’re looking for all records within a specific county or other region. However, it’s not quite as useful if you’re trying to locate all cemeteries within a certain radius of a location, regardless of local boundaries.
In addition to these resources, it is essential to contact the local library, genealogical society, and/or historical society where your ancestors are buried. These organizations are well-known for maintaining detailed listings of local cemeteries within their collections.
For instance, within Smyth County (where I live) there is a four-volume set of books that contains the work of two local historians, Mack and Kenny Sturgill. They spent several years mapping local cemeteries and collecting the names on all of the headstones.
Although these books were completed in the 1990s, the information is still valuable to genealogists. Detailed driving directions were given to help future researchers locate cemeteries that would otherwise be difficult to locate. Many of them are on private property and even in the middle of cow pastures or wooded areas.
Furthermore, some of the headstones that were legible in the 1990s have now become difficult to decipher due to weathering or have altogether disappeared. It is likely that the counties in which you are conducting cemetery research offer similar resources.
Cemetery research step #3: Prepare for a visit
Once you have found the cemetery you want to visit, you will want to take the following items along with you to make the most of your visit:
pair of gloves
notebook and pen
You may also want to use a damp cloth to bring out the carvings on headstones. A side note: if you are like me and have an aversion to snakes, you will either choose to go on cemetery expeditions during the winter, or you will invest in a pair of snake chaps.
Get more help! The Family Tree Cemetery Field Guide (above) contains detailed step-by-steps for using FindAGrave and BillionsGraves, plus guides for understanding tombstone epitaphs and symbol meanings.
Disclosure: Genealogy Gems is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com. Thank you for supporting our free podcast by using our link.
Cemetery research step #4: Visit and search for clues
This headstone shows something unusual: the couple’s ham radio call signs (the codes engraved just below their names).
The headstones found in cemeteries can reveal much about your family. You will find more than birth and death dates. If you look closely, you will discover symbols related to military service and religious beliefs, maiden names of the women in your family, and you may even find family members that you never knew about. Many times, you will find children buried in the family plot. Look around to see who is buried near your ancestors. It is likely that you will find connections to other family members when you are visiting the cemetery. These connections may lead you to break down long-standing brick walls within your family history.
In my own experience, there have been several instances in which cemetery research has helped shed light on a family mystery. I had grown up hearing that there were members of our family who had fought in the Civil War. Who were these men? What experiences did they have during the war? Where had they fought?
The answers to these questions came as the result of a visit to the cemetery. I had gone to Round Hill Cemetery to photograph the headstones of my Weimer ancestors. As I worked my way down the row, I encountered an unfamiliar name—William Henry Wymer. At the top of his headstone, there was a Southern Cross of Honor—a symbol used to denote a soldier who fought during the Civil War. Below his name was the following inscription: “Co. A, 6 VA RES, C.S.A:”
When I went home that afternoon, I began to search for more details. With some census research, I learned that he was the uncle of my great-grandmother, Mollie Weimer Overbay. Upon confirming his relationship to our family, I began searching for a pension application for his wife, Rhoda:
The application had been submitted in 1926 and told the story of William’s life. Among other things, I learned the answers to my questions about his service during the Civil War. His wife indicated that he enlisted during the last year of the war and was present during a well-known battle in our county—the Battle of Saltville. I am sure that my great-grandmother had grown up listening to tales of this battle and William’s experience during the war. The details of the story had been lost but were now re-discovered thanks to a trip to the cemetery.
Subtle clues like this one await you as you search out your own ancestors. The next time you make a trip to one of these libraries of marble, take a few moments to look closely at the clues that surround you. They may not be obvious, but they are there, waiting for your curiosity to uncover them. So, bring your cameras, your gloves, and your grass clippers to the cemetery on your next visit—but don’t forget to bring your questions and your ability to perceive the minute details, as you stand beneath the towering trees, among the rows of marble, waiting to offer up their long-held secrets.
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.