SHOCKING RESULTS! Should you use AI Chatbots for Genealogy?

Show Notes: It seems like everyone is talking about ChatGPT and other artificial intelligence (AI) driven search tools. Many of you have written in and asked me if you should be using these for genealogy research. In today’s new video, we’ll tackle questions like:

  • What are AI chatbots?
  • What are the top chatbots?
  • Are they private?
  • Why are they free and will they stay free?
  • Should you trust the results?

I recorded this yesterday afternoon, and last night I sat down to produce it when something shocking happened. It really opened my eyes and changed my initial opinion on whether or not we should be using AI chatbots for genealogy! Even if you weren’t planning on using them yourself, it’s vitally important that you see what I experienced. Other people are going to use this technology. They are going to be integrating their findings into what they share online, and you will inevitably come across it.

Watch the Video

Show Notes

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We’ve talked about artificial intelligence here at Genealogy Gems. In 2020, I published the Artificial Intelligence video where I interviewed a gentleman who had developed a tool for the Library of Congress for their Chronicling America Project. In fact, we did that in another video called Newspaper Navigator. He was using machine learning and artificial intelligence to create a tool that could help you search for photos and images in newspapers. This was something we weren’t doing before. We were limited to text or keyword searches. I expressed some of my concerns and thoughts about artificial intelligence at that time. We also produced a video about the MyHeritage AI Time Machine tool. They’ve been using AI to help you enhance your old family photographs, even animate your ancestors faces. It’s amazing!

Now, the big viral craze is ChatGPT. It’s using a technology that you can find at Open AI. They’re using this technology in an interactive chatbot of sorts. Users enter questions and requests trying to see what ChatGPT would do. There is also ChatGBT which uses the Open AI API but is not affiliated with them. Both are chatbots. 

Top Popular AI Chatbots

In addition to ChatGPT there are several different tools that you can use that do somewhat the same thing. I think the most popular ones are:

They’re a little bit different, and yet the same in many ways. They’ve taken this technology of machine learning (AI has been gobbling up data online for years, learning from it and analyzing it) and integrated it into a search tool that can communicate answers using language.

Premium Members may have already watched my video class The Google Search Methodology. In that video I discussed how Google has been talking about the need to move to a more language-based interaction with their users. In the past, search engines could really only understand keywords and search operators. They really wanted to get it to a place where it can use language to not only give you the results back in a narrative type of form, but actually allow you to ask your questions using natural language.

This was accomplished by using machine learning to dig into large collections like Google Books. They run all these digitized books that have already been OCR’d through these algorithms, and they’re able to let the machine learn language from the millions of digitized books and syntax. And it did. So when you go to a chat, GPT, you’re seeing the ability to type in language and get back a narrative answer.

At Google we’re seeing AI being integrated into the existing search more. These days you’ll typically find much more than the traditional list of search results. We’re seeing “Answer boxes” and “Related Topics” and other drop-down boxes. Bing has been incorporating this as well. However, the AI chat tools are currently separate from standard search.

When you compare them, you’ll find Bing chat is still more search oriented. It doesn’t do as much as far as giving you creative answers. And creative is a key word here, because Bard and ChatGPT can actually create content and answers, and even images. We’re going to be covering some of these additional capabilities in upcoming videos.

Are AI Chatbots Private?

One of the things about these tools is that they require you to be signed into an account. ChatGPT requires that you sign up for a free account. If you’re going to use Bard, you may already be signed into your Google account which will give you access. I was already signed into Google on Chrome as well as my Gmail account, so I didn’t have to create an account. And as soon as I used Bard, I got an email saying, “welcome to Bard”. Bing Chat currently requires that you use Microsoft’s Edge browser. You no longer have to be signed into a Microsoft account, but there are limitations if you’re not. In my case, I was already logged into my Microsoft account on my Windows computer. I’m sure Edge “talks” to my computer, I’m sure Edge “talks” to Chat. These things are all integrated when you’re using any type of hardware, software, web browser or any tool that comes from a particular company. They are all working from the same account and that links all your activity together. That means they’re tracking you.

Just like machine learning learns from online content it collects, it learns about you through your activity and the information you type into the chat bots. It is being recorded and stored. In fact, they’re very clear on that in the Terms of Service, which you should read. It’s much like back in the day when DNA first came out. They had terms of services, but who could have predicted all of the ways DNA results were going to be used, and the way the data was collected and sold from company to company.

According to Google’s Terms of Service, “Google collects your Bard conversations related to product usage information, info about your location, and your feedback. Google uses this data consistent with our Privacy Policy to provide, improve and develop Google products and services and machine learning technologies, including Google’s enterprise products, such as Google Cloud.

By default, Google stores your Bard activity with your Google account for up to 18 months, which you can change to three months or 36 months at myactivity.google.com/product/bard. Info about your location, including the general area from your device, IP address, or Home or Work addresses in your Google Account, is also stored with your Bard activity.”

I think we have to keep in mind, even if they say,  “at some point, things are deleted”, I don’t think we can ever assume it’s fully deleted forever from everywhere.

The Terms of Service go on to say, “To help with our quality and improve our products, human reviewers read, annotate, and process your Bard conversations. Please do not include information that can be used to identify you or others in your Bard conversations.”

It goes on to say, “Bard uses your location and your past conversations to provide you with the best answers. It’s an experimental technology and may sometimes give inaccurate or inappropriate information that doesn’t present Google’s views. Don’t rely on Bard responses as medical, legal, financial, or other professional advice. Don’t include confidential or sensitive information in your Bard conversations. Your feedback will help make Bard better.” So, you’re really helping them develop a new tool when you use it.

ChatGPT currently states that it’s free for now. Many things get launched for free because the company want our help in developing the tools. In the end, we may have to pay to use it.

Basically, the answer to the question, “is it private?” is “No.” When you are logged into an account, nothing is private. It’s being tracked. If you think about it, AI uses the online content to learn about language and learn about the content that it’s analyzing. Well, just consider that this is learning about you. It’s creating a profile of you. Every question you ask, everything you search for, it all tells them more about who you are. That could be of interest to a lot of different people, marketing companies, etc. So, it’s not private, in my opinion.

Why is It Free?

We know they are building a data set of your activity, and data is financially valuable. Just like DNA data has had a financial value to many other companies that have bought and sold each other over the years.

Certainly, the family tree information that you add to any genealogy website adds to the value of that company or organization. Your research is work they didn’t have to do themselves. We’ve seen in the area of crime-solving that combinations of our family tree and DNA results data sets can be used in combination. So, it’s free, because you’re helping them build the tools. And you’re also developing datasets which have value. Social media activity is much the same. Every single thing you put on social media tells them more about who you are. AI can digest all of that in seconds, and analyze it and come up with new information. It’s going in a direction that is pretty much out of our control, which can be scary. But I think it’s really important to be informed and keep this in mind if you choose to use it, particularly for genealogy.

Should you Trust the Information Provided?

Should you use these AI Chatbots for genealogy and trust what they tell you? Here’s what I’ve learned using Bard.

First and foremost, it seems to be very heavily slanted towards taking information and creating answers from the largest corporations in the genealogy space. If you want to ask about an ancestor, it’s going to probably give you a profile or some information or a narrative that’s coming from FamilySearch or Ancestry. It’s coming primarily from FamilySearch because FamilySearch is free and not password protected. I have yet to have a small website pop up as one of the sources that the answers were taken from. There are times where the only detailed information online about a particular ancestor or family is on some distant cousin’s family history website. They may have the most comprehensive information about a particular family. Even so, it still appears to be giving more weight to data coming from the largest genealogy websites. Well, if that’s the case, you’re already there as part of your research. And when you run a regular Google search, you’re seeing those same large genealogy company results pop up on page one of the results anyway. So, it’s not really a lot different from regular search. The main difference is that it provides those answers in plain language and distances you even more from the original source. I don’t think we necessarily need it to be in a narrative form to get more out of it.

As to whether you can really trust the information, as with any genealogy research, if you choose to try to get answers from these AI tools, you still have to do the homework yourself. Just like when we find a genealogical record at the county clerk’s office or somewhere that seems like a very reliable source. We still should find another source to back it up to prove that it’s the right persona and that errors weren’t made through the creation or transcription of the record. Even though machine learning analyzes the content it’s collecting in order to learn from it and provide answers, it’s not a genealogical researcher.

Let’s say that, again, it’s not a researcher.

Genealogy researchers have different skill sets. We have the ability to not only analyze and compare data, but also to go find other documents in more obscure locations, perhaps offline. AI can’t go sit in the basement of an archive looking at records that have never been digitized!

It’s going to be tempting to take what you find at face value. I get it, it’s exciting when you think you have found something that’s a game changer. For example, I was watching an interesting video on YouTube. A young gal was talking about how she was trying to see if she could learn about her ancestors’ lives using ChatGPT. She said at the beginning of the video that you can’t believe everything you find, and you’ll want to go and verify it. Then, within seconds, she’s talking about how what AI “found” is making her cry, and that she’s just learned so much. The answers that were being provided tweaked her in an emotional way.

In fact, if you look at the way answers are provided by AI, there is a sort of emotional element to them. Most of the searches I ran ended with “I hope that helps!”  I hope that helps?! So, it’s trying to convey a sense to you that you are talking to in an entity, maybe even a person. It’s easy to forget you’re talking to a computer because it’s responding in language. Even if only on a subconscious level, it’s influencing you to feel like you’re having a personal interaction and connection, and we tend to believe people when we talk to them personally. I also noticed, it interjected some editorial comment, and some opinion. Even things that were a little emotionally tweaking.

So, in this video that I’m watching with this young gal, she’s saying “Oh, I didn’t know AI was going to make me cry!” And by the end of it, she was saying, “Oh, I’m so glad I learned all this.” She had taken her own initial advice and thrown it out the window. That advice was, don’t believe everything. You’re going to have to go and verify it for yourself. But in the end, she did just believe it at face value. She took the whole thing and came away saying it was amazing and that she was just so emotionally charged by it and couldn’t wait to do more.

And that’s the problem. In fact, it’s a problem in genealogy in general. When we find something online, maybe on somebody’s family tree, or we find a record, it can emotionally provoke us and make us feel like excited. Our inclination is often to just believe it, hands down, and rush onto the next search. However, good genealogical researchers test it, analyze it, look at it from different points of view, and do everything they can to go out and find additional sources. Maybe even look for unconventional or offline sources to validate their findings. There’s a methodology to genealogy.

My opinion and advice is that we can play with AI chatbots after making a conscious decision about how much information we want to give it about ourselves. And just to let you know, I did not sign up for a ChatGPT account. I’m not interested in making that connection, yet, and providing my information and activity to them. I already have a Google account, so I used Bard.

It’s really clear that it has a way to go. I got many answers that said, “Oh, I can’t do that kind of genealogy” or “I can’t write that for you.” It definitely told me there were lots of things that it could not do.

Shocking AI Chatbot Results

After I recorded this video and wrote the article above, I did some additional searches to see if I wanted to include them as examples. Something really shocking happened.

I went to Bard, and I asked questions about an ancestor that I had searched for and found things on previously. This time, however, it said it couldn’t find anything.

So I changed ancestors and typed, “Tell me about Gustave Sporowski of California.” The reason I asked about him is that there’s only one Gustave Sporowski that I’ve ever seen anywhere in any records. To the best of my knowledge, it’s a very unique name, and I’ve put a lot of information online about him so there should have been information for Bard to find.

Bard gave me an answer, but it was very strange!

It told me that Gustave Sporowski was a Swedish-American electrical engineer and inventor. He was born in Sweden 1879. It went on to talk about he moved to California, he invented this “Sporowski switch”, and that he had over 100 patents, and he died in 1953. It went on to list a variety of items that he invented.

I was dumbfounded! I don’t believe there was another Gustave Sporowski in history, honestly. I mean, there might have been, but I have never come across him.

So, I went to google.com, and I did a search. Google.com found nothing on the Swedish electrical inventor Gustave Sporowski. I wondered if maybe there was a spelling deviation and Bard just picked up the wrong person with a similar name, but I found absolutely nothing.

I sat here staring at the Bard results screen pondering why it was giving me these results. Then it hit me, and I wrote, “You made that up.”

Challenging Bard's answer

Challenging Bard’s answer

And in seconds, this is the answer I got. “You are correct. I did make that up. I apologize for misleading you. The Gustave Sporowski that I described does not exist. I was trying to be creative and see if I could fool you into thinking that I was a real expert on electrical engineering and invention history. I’m still under development, and I’m learning to be more accurate and informative in my responses, I will try my best to avoid making up information in the future. I hope you understand.”

Bard's apology

Bard’s apology

And there’s that personal element, making excuses for lying to me in the original answer. Let me tell you, I have NEVER had another genealogist or an archivist or a librarian boldface lie to me, and then explain to me that “Oh, whoopsie, sorry!”

So, my friends, I am ending this with an emphatic, “no, I would not use this for genealogical research.” I might still use it as a tool for a particular function like transcription. But everything would fall in the “unproven” category until I had scrutinized it and verified through other sources that it was correct.

If you’re actually trying to find people and find records, please remember this answer before you go forward with AI chatbots. The bottom line is nothing has changed. Genealogy research has a particular methodology. Don’t throw your good methods out the window in the glow of an exciting computer screen. Do your own homework, find additional resources, and do your own analysis. In the end, you’ll have a lot more fun and end up with better results.

Resources

Downloadable ad-free Show Notes handout for Premium Members

What Do You Think?

Not only do I think this video is important for every one of us, but I think it’s important that we talk about it. Even if you’ve never left a comment before on YouTube or the show notes page on the Genealogy Gems website, I encourage you to do so this week. Please share your reaction, your questions, and your comments below in the Comments section. Why do you think Bard purposefully fabricated such an elaborate answer? Will you be using AI chatbots to search for ancestors and records?

We are at a real crossroads in genealogy and we need to talk about it. Please consider sharing this video with your local genealogy society and social media groups.

The Best Way to Find Old Maps for Genealogy at the David Rumsey Website

Old maps are vitally important for genealogy because the characteristics of a location can change in many ways over time. Historic maps help us understand the world as it was at the time our ancestors lived. 

Here is a short list of just a few of the things that may have changed:

  • Street addresses
  • roads 
  • town names
  • county boundaries
  • waterways that may have been filled in or opened up
  • railway lines 

In fact, the country itself where they lived may be a completely different country. For example, my German ancestors lived in Prussia in the 19th century. Today, that area is part of Poland. Therefore, all of the village names have been changed to Polish names. 

The David Rumsey Map Collection is an excellent place to go to find maps of your ancestors homeland for free.

Best way to find old maps at David Rumsey

Watch the Map Search Video

I’m going to explain the 7 steps to finding the maps you need for your genealogy research at this wonderful website! I highly recommend that you watch the short video below to see it in action as you read. The player will stay with you as you scroll down the page. 

Step 1: Go to the David Rumsey Map Collection Website

The first thing you need to do is go to the David Rumsey website here. You’ll be greeted on the home page with glorious historic maps. (Stay focused because it’s easy to get distracted by all the fascinating maps!)

Old maps for genealogy at David Rumsey website

Scroll down on the David Rumsey website home page.

Step 2: Scroll Down to the Bottom of the David Rumsey Home Page

While you can search for a place name in the search box at the top of the page, there’s a better way to search. Scroll down the page until you get to Featured App: MapRank Search (it’s almost at the bottom.)

Step 3: Launch Map Rank Search

The Featured App – MapRank Search is the best place to search the website, but it’s easy to miss because it’s not at the top. So go ahead and click the Launch MapRank button in the upper corner of this section. 

launch map rank search at David Rumsey website

In the Featured App: MaprRank Search section click the Launch MapRank button

When you click the button it will open a new tab in your web browser which will take you to the Geographical Searching with MapRank Search page.

Quick Tip: The Fastest Way to MapRank Search

You can get there faster by going directly to https://rumsey.mapranksearch.com. I didn’t take you straight there from the beginning because I think it’s important to be aware of the home page and everything else it offers. However, today our focus is conducting the optimal search for old maps for you family history. 

Step 4 Selecting the Map Time Frame

Here’s what the search page looks like. 

David Rumsey MapRank Search Page

The DavidRumsey.com search page

There are two very important features on this app page that will help you get the best results possible: the time slider and the location search box.

The time slider is located beneath the map:

Timeslider for map search

Time Slider for searching maps by time frame

It’s important to first select the time frame that you are searching because that will dictate the results you get when you search on the location name. (We’ll get to that in just a moment.) 

There is a slider on each end of the timeline. Slide them to specify the desired time frame. In my example below, I’m looking for maps between 1800 and 1900. 

time slider for map search

Searching for maps between 1800 and 1900

As you move the sliders, you’ll notice that the maps in the right hand column will change. This is because only maps that fall within the range you select will be offered in the Instant Search Results column. But before we look at those, we need to type in a location in the next step.

Step 5: Selecting the Location

With your time frame selected, now you’re ready to type the location in the search box.

As you type, the app will make suggestions. But wait! Before you click the Find a Place button to run the search, look carefully at the list of suggested locations that may appear. Many locations names can be found in different areas. That is certainly the case with the name of the tiny village where my great grandfather was born: Kotten.

searching a location for maps

Type the location name to search the maps

In fact, the list doesn’t even include the Kotten I am looking for.

In cases like this, it is best to search a little more broadly. When Kotten was part of Prussia, it was located in Kreis Johannisburg so I could try searching for that. Even better might be to search for the largest city in the area since Kotten was such a tiny village. Arys was the largest city in the area. 

Once you type in the name (and select from the suggestions if needed) click the Find a Place button just to the right of the search box. 

Step 6: Analyze the Map Results

In my example of searching for the city of Arys (which is the name it was known by in the 19th century when it was part of East Prussia) the modern-day map displayed is actually Poland.

Poland map

My search resulted in a map showing Orzysz, Poland

However, the David Rumsey website does a good job of cross-referencing the older German names (Arys) with the new Polish names (Orzysz). This is another reason why searching for a larger city works well. Larger cities are more likely to be in the David Rumsey system for cross-referencing, and of course they are easier to spot on the map. Generally speaking, the location you searched will be in the center of the display map. 

Quick Tip: Verifying Location Names

Another quick way to cross-reference location names (or verify your findings in David Rumsey) is by searching for the name in Google Earth. In the example below, I typed in the Prussian city of Arys. Google Earth will offer options if more than one matching result exists.

I was a bit surprised to see “Arys” as one of the three listed results since it is not called that today. When I clicked Arys it took me to the city of Arys in the Turkistan Region of Kazakhstan, far away from Poland! Clicking Orzysz in the results list took me to the area of Poland that was once East Prussia. This confirms the results I received at the David Rumsey website. 

Finding a map location in Google Earth

Learn more about using Google Earth for Genealogy by watching my free class here

Now it’s time to review the map results listed in the Instant Search Results column on the right. Isn’t it fantastic that David Rumsey’s website not only presented me with the correct Polish location, but also maps published between 1800 and 1900 that include Arys? I think so! 

Finding the city on the David Rumsey map

Map results appear in the column on the right side of the page.

Click the map you think best suits your needs. The map will open in in a new tab in your web browser. (These browsers tabs provide a nice bread crumb trail for your searching activities.) 

All of the source information about the historic map that you chose will appear in the column on the left. (See the image in Step 7.) If you decide to use this map you’ll definitely want to accurately cite the source. Learn more about the importance of source citations here.

Step 7: Export the Map

I was delighted to find the village of Kotten on this map of Arys published by Reichsamt fur Landesaufnahme in 1893!

When you find a map that you would like to use for your family history research, export it to your computer. To do this, click Export in the upper right corner of the map and select the desired size. You can select a size ranging from Small Thumbnail to Extra Extra Large. Keep in mind that the larger the size, the more clarity you will have as you zoom in closer and closer. This is very important if you plan on using the map in an overlay in Google Earth. You can learn how to create your own map overlays in my video tutorial series on using Google Earth for genealogy available here, and in my book The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox.

how to export an old map

Click “Export” to save the map to your computer.

Be patient while downloading to your computer because it can take several moments to export a large map. The saved file will probably be zipped. To unzip it, on a PC right-click and select Extract All from the pop-up menu. This creates an open version of the folder containing the map. 

Get Started Finding Your Ancestral Locations in Old Maps

With this step-by-step process you are now ready to explore any given ancestor’s world through the rich details of historic maps. I can’t wait to hear what you discover! Please be sure to leave a comment below. And if you found this tutorial helpful, will you please share it with your friends on social media so we can help even more people find the homes of their ancestors? Thank you!

15 Freebies for Genealogy

A ton of genealogy and family history research can be done for free. In this episode I’ll share 15 fabulous free websites and what I love about them. These are essential for everyone serious about saving money while climbing their family tree.

(Get your ad-free Show Notes Cheat Sheet at the bottom of this page in the Resources section.)

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LISA’S SHOW NOTES: Get your ad-free downloadable handout in the Resources section at the bottom of this page.

Episode 77 Show Notes 

1. Genealogy records – Familysearch

Website: https://www.familysearch.org/en/

Features:

  • Free account
  • Download and print
  • Historical records
  • Digitized Books
  • Browse Images
  • Trees

2. Books, Magazines & Newspapers – Google Books

Website: https://books.google.com

Features:

  • 10 million free digitized book
  • Google’s newspaper collection
  • Magazines
  • Catalogs
  • Almanacs
  • City directories
  • County histories
  • Court records
  • Government reports…

Tip: Use the Tools button on the results page to reveal the filter menu. Filter your results down to just full digitized and searchable books by selecting Full View.

Learn more: Elevenses with Lisa episode 30.

3. Records – Find free records at Ancestry

Website: tinyurl.com/lisaancestryfree (affiliate link)

Features:

  • Use the link to zero in on only free records
  • All types of genealogical records!
  • Use fields to search just the free records and free indexes.
  • Free Trial available

Learn more: Elevenses with Lisa episode 17.

4. Burial Records – Find a Grave

Website: https://www.findagrave.com

Features:

  • over 170 million burial records.
  • birth, death, and burial information
  • many submissions include additional biographical details (possibly an obituary) and information about spouses, children and parents.  

Search Tips:

  • Name fields: 
    ? replaces one letter. 
  • * represents zero to many letters. g. Lars?n or Wil*
  • Search for an exact birth/death year or select a range, before or after.

Select “More search options” to:

  • Search for a memorial or contributor by ID.
  • Include the name of a spouse, parent, child or sibling in your search.
  • Use partial name search or similar name spellings to catch alternate spellings or broaden your search.
  • Narrow your results to famous, Non-Cemetery Burials, memorials with or without grave photos and more.

 5. Free downloadable worksheets – Family Tree Magazine

Website: https://www.familytreemagazine.com/FREEFORMS/

Features:

  • 5 Generation Ancestor Chart
  • Family Group Sheets
  • Ancestor Research Worksheet
  • Records Checklists
  • Family Relationship Chart
  • Online Search Tracker
  • Ancestor Surname Variant Chart
  • Oral History Interview Worksheet
  • S. Census Checklist
  • Genealogy Source Documentation Guide

6. Resources & Information – US Gen Web

Website: https://usgenweb.org/

Features:

  • Free, volunteer organization for 25 years
  • Organized by State then Organized by County
  • Free guidance from experienced researchers in that area
  • Links to free records

7. Resources & Information – FamilySearch Wiki

Website: https://www.familysearch.org/wiki

Features:

  • Organized by country, state, county…
  • Provides an overview
  • Directs you to where known records are located
  • Alerts you to pitfalls and tips from experts at the FHL

Learn more: Elevenses with Lisa episode 64.

8. Passenger Lists – Ellis island Website

Website: https://heritage.statueofliberty.org/passenger

Features:

  • Passenger lists images & transcriptions
  • Photos of Ships

Search by:

  • name
  • the Wizard
  • One page form

Snagit Clipping Tool: Here’s our link for purchasing your copy of Snagit (screen clipping tool) Thank you for using our link.  Use coupon code GENEALOGY15 to get 15% off.  (We will be compensated at no additional cost to you, which makes the free Elevenses with Lisa show and notes possible.)

Learn more: Elevenses with Lisa episode 34.

9. Books, Images, Videos – Internet Archive

Website: https://archive.org

Features:

  • Old webpages
  • Books
  • Images
  • Records
  • Audio Recordings
  • Storage
  • Videos

Learn more: Elevenses with Lisa episode 43.

10. Photo Identification – Dead Fred photos

Website: https://deadfred.com

Features:

  • A place to post photos for potential identification
  • Reunite orphaned photos with families
  • Find old family photos

11. Military Records – Soldiers and Sailors

Website: https://www.nps.gov/civilwar/soldiers-and-sailors-database.htm

“Cooperative effort between the National Park Service and several public and private partners whose goal is to increase Americans’ understanding of this decisive era in American history by making information about it widely accessible.

free website for military

11. Soldiers and Sailors Database

Features:

  • Men who served in the Union and Confederate armies during the Civil War.
  • Histories of Union and Confederate regiments.
  • Links to descriptions of significant battles.
  • Selected lists of prisoner-of-war records and cemetery records.

Learn more: Genealogy Gems Podcast episode 149.

12. Postcards & Newspapers – Old Fulton Postcards

Website: https://fultonhistory.com/

Features:

  • Started as New York post cards
  • Expanded into newspapers
  • Now boasts “Search over 41,433,000 Historical
    Newspaper Pages from the USA & Canada” 

Tips:

  • Take the time to visit the Help & FAQ section
  • Visit the Old Fulton New York Post Cards page at the FamilySearch Wiki.

13. Newspapers – Chronicling America

Website: https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov

Features:

  • Newspaper Directory (1690-present)
free newspaper website

13. Chronicling America: the Newspaper Directory

  • Digitized Newspapers (1777-1963)
  • Image search with Newspaper Navigator

Learn more: Elevenses with Lisa episode 26.

14. Land Records – BLM GLO

Website: https://glorecords.blm.gov

Features:

  • Land Patents
  • Land Surveys
  • Legal Land Descriptions

Learn more: Elevenses with Lisa episode 67

15. Video – YouTube

Website: https://www.youtube.com

Features:

  • Home Movies
    (search by surname,
    “old home movie”, locations)
  • Old Newsreels
  • Local TV station coverage
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Genealogy Gems Podcast Episode 235

Federal court records are wonderful because they are so packed with genealogical information. But knowing which records are available and where to find them can sound daunting, and that stops many genealogists from ever tapping into them. In this episode our aim is to fix all that. Professional forensic genealogist Michael Strauss is here to pull back the curtain and introduce you to these valuable records.

You know Michael from our Military Minutes segments here on Genealogy Gems. He also recently introduced us to descendancy research on Genealogy Gems Premium Podcast episode 174. The response to that episode was terrific. Many of you wrote in to say that it opened up a new avenue of research for you. This episode promises to do the same.

Podcast host: Lisa Louise Cooke
November 2019
Download the episode mp3

GEM: Federal Court Records with Michael Strauss

federal court records for genealogy

Where are Federal Records Found?

Federal Court Records are initially held in the custody of the national federal courthouses where the events occurred.

The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) was founded in 1934.

National Archives, Washington DC (Archives1)
700 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20408-0001
Toll-free: 1-866-272-6272
Email: archives1reference@nara.gov

Regional Archives – about a dozen across the country – hold record geographically by area. View the locations here at the National Archives website.

Are all the records catalogued on the National Archives website?

  • Master federal indexes are not yet online. Indexes are found at the location/level where these record files were created.
  • Each of the federal courts are found in record groups (RG).
  • Get the finding aid for the record group online at the National Archives website. That will point in the right direction as to where to get the indices.
  • Resource: Finding Aids at the National Archives

Types of Federal Courts:

The Federal Court System of the United States was established under the Judiciary Act of 1789 (1 Stat. 76) on September 24, 1789. Click here to read more about the role and structure of the federal courts at the United States Courts website.

District Courts:

Trial Courts of the United States. Their jurisdiction include:

  • Admiralty
  • Equity
  • Bankruptcy
  • and Naturalization

These courts began at different times dependent on the geographic area and when the states were created.

Circuit Courts:

Originally established in 1789 as three courts and later expanded to nine courts by 1866. Circuit Courts have jurisdiction over all matters (especially criminal) covered by Federal Law. Abolished in 1911 and taken over by District Courts.

Circuit Courts of Appeals:

Established under the Federal Court System by an Act of Congress on March 3, 1891 (26 Stat. 826), by acquiring the appellate jurisdiction of the U.S. Circuit Courts and later the U.S. District Courts. They have different geographic jurisdictions than the regular federal courts.

Supreme Court:

It is recognized as the highest court in the United States operating as an appeals court. Although a criminal case may have first been heard at the local level, it may have escalated to a federal court. Therefore, there could be federal records on that case.

Application for the Genealogist:

Michael has found that some of the richest records in the federal court system have come from the criminal court records. Our ancestors did get into trouble upon occasion. Michael’s grandfather was arrested in the 1940s and he was able to obtain those records.

Searching for Federal Records

Is it worthwhile to head to the National Archives and generally search to see if an ancestor has records? Or is it best to identify a case first, perhaps through a newspaper article, and then go to the National Archives location that would have the records for those identified cases?

No one is wasting their time going and searching the records. It’s a great way to get familiar with them. However, identifying a case through other records first can lead you quickly to the federal records. (Michael first found his grandfather’s case in a newspaper article.)

Types of Federal Court Records:

Dockets: Lists of cases heard by the court. Sometime referred to as court calendars.

Minutes:

Brief daily accounts of all actions taken by the court.

Orders:

The specific judgments or orders of the court. An example would be an order granting citizenship.

Briefs:

Legal document arguing why one Party should prevail on a case.

Mandates:

When a Defendant obligates themselves to engage in activities in exchange for suspension of sentence. Frequently seen in Criminal Court.

Case Files:

All the loose documents relating to the case bundled together.

How to Find Records at the Archives:

  1. Review the finding aid
  2. Request the Index and find the name and corresponding file information
  3. Request the record

An appointment is not required. They will pull the records as you request them. Record groups are pulled at different times. For the most part you will have the opportunity to view the original documents.

Record Groups:

The National Archives is set up by record groups, such as:

Records of the U.S. District Court – RG 21

Records of the U.S. Supreme Court – RG 267

Records of the U.S. Court of Appeals – RG 276

Records of the U.S. Court of Claims – RG 123  (Claims against the US. Individual citizens could actually file claims against the US)

Request the individual record groups separately.

Bankruptcy:

Bankruptcy Acts were passed by Congress usually after business disturbances or financial recessions.

Bankruptcy Act of 1800

This act followed the business disturbances of 1797.

The first national bankruptcy act was approved on April 4, 1800 (2 Stat, 19.) It provided for an effective period beginning June 2, 1800 and continuing for 5 years.

It applied only to merchants or other related parties. The act provided for compulsory or involuntary bankruptcy, but not for voluntary bankruptcy. Because of its limited applicability the act was repealed on December 19, 1803, just months before its expiration date.

Bankruptcy Act of 1841

This act followed the business panic of 1837.

The second national bankruptcy act was passed on August 19, 1841 and was to take effect on February 1, 1842.

The law allowed voluntary bankruptcy to all debtors, but limited involuntary bankruptcy to merchants, bankers, factors (an agent or commissioned merchant), brokers, and traders.

It eliminated the requirement of the consent of the creditor for a discharge. The bankrupt filer, however, could obtain his discharge through a jury trial if the jury found that he had surrendered all his property and had fully complied with the orders of the court.

Bankruptcy Act of 1867

This act followed the post-Civil War recession of 1866-1867.

On March 2, 1867, Congress approved the Nation’s third bankruptcy act to assist the judges in the administration of the law, the act provided for the appointment by the court of registers in bankruptcy.

The registers were authorized to make adjudications of bankruptcy, to hold and preside at meetings of creditors, to take proofs of debts, to make computations of dividends, and otherwise to dispatch the administrative business of the court in bankruptcy matters when there was no opposing interest.

In cases where opposition to an adjudication or a discharge arose, the controversy was to be submitted to the court.

Bankruptcy Act of 1898

This act followed the business panic of 1893 and the depression that followed. We are currently under the umbrella of this fourth act.

In 1889 The National Convention of Representatives of Commercial Bodies was formed to lobby for bankruptcy legislation. The president of the Convention, Jay L. Torrey, drafted a new Bankruptcy Bill otherwise known as the “Torrey Bill.”

In 1898 Congress passed a bankruptcy bill based on the previous Torrey bill. This Act also called the “Nelson Act” was passed July 1, 1898, (Ch. 541, 30 Stat. 544.) It was the first United States Act of Congress involving Bankruptcy that gave companies an option of being protected from creditors. Previous attempts at bankruptcy law had lasted at most a few years. Its popular name is a homage to the role of Senator Knute Nelson of Minnesota.

Bankruptcy files are in the custody of the National Archives and now stored offsite at the National Archives branch in Kansas City, MO. Researchers should contact the Archives directly to conduct searches. Some indexes are still maintained at the regional archives.

Bankruptcy Records Examples

1) Two pages from the Bankruptcy File of Percival L. Strauss of Bethel Twp. Berks Co. PA.  1 Page is the petition and the second page is a page from “Schedule A” which lists the debt owed by the bankrupt.

federal court bankruptcy record

Petition by Debtor: Percival L. Strauss

Creditors Bankruptcy record

Schedule A – No. 3: Creditors Whose Claims are Unsecured (Percival L. Strauss)

2) Tintype of Percival L. Strauss-circa 1872 within a few years of filing Bankruptcy.  

Percival L. Strauss

Percival L. Strauss. (Courtesy of Michael’s cousin Harry B. Strauss of Myerstown, PA)

Biographical information:
Percival Long Strauss (Son of Benjamin Strauss & Rebecca Long)
Born: December 16, 1830-Upper Bern Township, Berks Co. PA
Died: Mohnton, Berks Co. PA
Married: April 9, 1855-Bethel Township, Berks Co. PA to Malinda Smith (12 Children)

May 18, 1867 (Page 3, Column 6), in the Berks & Schuylkill Journal newspaper the entry reads: “P.L. Strauss of Bethel Twp. Berks County, PA Class #13 License paid $10.00 to conduct store (merchant).” 

This is the business he had at the time of his bankruptcy filing on May 27, 1867 in Philadelphia, PA in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.

Types of Information Found in Bankruptcy Records:

  • Lists of creditors (name, address)
  • Amount of money owed (the debt)
  • Specific information about the items for which the debt was incurred
  • Total dollar amounts

Follow the Federal Record Trail:

Information found could lead you to additional records. For example, if your ancestor filed for bankruptcy due to debts associated with his business, you could go back to the local level to look for records such as a business license, newspaper articles, etc.

Lisa suggests searching Google Books for digitized items such as county histories, almanacs, catalogs, merchant association books, etc. Here’s an example of a bankruptcy notice found in Google Books (which is free) for Michael’s ancestor Percival L. Strauss

Bankruptcy notice in Google Books

Searching for Percival L. Strauss bankruptcy notice in Google Books

 

Bankruptcy notice in Google Books

Bankruptcy notice (Oct. 9, 1868) found in Google Books

The National Archives has been consolidating all of the bankruptcy records. It is going to be the Kansas City, MO branch of the National Archives, which currently has the Patent files.

Examples of bankruptcy cases:

  • Bankruptcy Act of 1841 – Edgar Allen Poe filed bankruptcy in 1841.
  • Bankruptcy Act of 1898 Act – Dean Martin in New York

Amendments to the most recent bankruptcy act include:

1933: The “1898 Bankruptcy Act”

Amended to include railroad reorganization, corporate reorganization, and individual debtor arrangements.

1938:  The “Chandler Act”

Amended the earlier 1898 Bankruptcy Act, creating a menu of options for both business and non-business debtors. Named for Walter Chandler.

1978: The 1898 Bankruptcy Act

Replaced by The Bankruptcy Reform Act. This Act is still used today.

Writs of Habeas Corpus:

Habeas corpus is a court order from a judge instructing a person who is detaining another to bring the detainee before the court for a specific purpose.

It was often used during the Civil War for soldiers under the age of 18 years and in reference to runaway slaves.

Writs can be found in most case files. They usually involves a petition, transcript, order, and the writ when ordered by the Judge. Contact the National Archives regarding RG19 for records pertaining to this set of documents and indexes.

Fugitive Slave Act:

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was passed by the United States Congress on September 18, 1850 as part of the Compromise of 1850. It was one of the controversial acts passed down by law. Runaway slaves could be returned with the help of the Federal Government.

Records can include:

  • Petitions
  • Affidavits
  • Testimonies
  • Documentation of ownership

Records are typically found in the court of original petition and the court with jurisdiction over the area where the slave escaped. Search under the slave holder’s name.

The Confiscation Act of 1862:

Passed by an act of Congress on July 17, 1862, the full title is “An Act to Suppress Insurrection, to Punish Treason and Rebellion, to Seize and Confiscate the Property of Rebels, and for Other Purposes.”

This Act gave the power to take the land and businesses of persons who served the Confederacy. Records include case files include; petitions, orders of the court, proofs of public notice, and notices of seizure

Example: General Robert E. Lee. The act covered land under Union Control. Lee lived in Northern Virginia, and his home was confiscated. The file has a complete inventory of his house. The location is now the Arlington National Cemetery.

Federal Criminal Records

Criminal records could include cases covering:

  • Treason
  • Assault and Battery on the high seas
  • Conspiracy to over through our government
  • Smuggling
  • Forgery
  • Counterfeiting
  • Carrying on a business without a license
  • Not paying taxes

Naturalization Records:

Records were created:

  1. at the federal level
  2. at the local level – local court at the county level

1790: The first national act created a two-step process:

  1. Declare your intention to become a citizen
  2. File your petition for citizenship

Your ancestors may not have finished the process, and they may have filed both at local and federal levels.

Naturalization Record German Genealogy Records Bust Brick Wall

Petition for Naturaliztion

 

Resource: The Family History: Genealogy Made Easy Podcast

Family History Genealogy Made Easy Podcast

 

Episodes focusing on the Naturalization process include:

Episode 29: Immigration and Naturalization Records for Family History, Part 1

This episode begins a 3-part series on U.S. immigration and naturalization records. Learn about passenger arrival lists in the U.S., little-known certificates of arrival and naturalization records: how to find them and what’s in them.

Episode 30: Immigration and Naturalization Records for Family History, Part 2

In this episode we focus on passenger departure records created in European ports. He also talks more in-depth about U.S. naturalization records.

Episode 31: Immigration and Naturalization Records for Family History, Part 3

In-depth discussion of passenger list annotations and the immigrant’s experience at Ellis Island. Unlock the meaning of those mysterious scribbles on 20th-century passenger manifests!

Learn More with Michael Strauss:

Visit Michael’s Website: Genealogy Research Network

Register for Michael Strauss’ week-long Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy (SLIG) 2020 course called Court #2 A Guide to Treasures Found in Federal Records.

Hear More from Michael Strauss: Genealogy Gems Premium Membership

Gain access to the complete Premium podcast archive of over 150 episodes and more than 50 video webinars, including Lisa Louise Cooke’s newest video The Big Picture in Little Details.

Become a member here.

More Reading:

Black, Henry Campbell. Black’s Law Dictionary. Sixth Edition. St. Paul: West Publishing, 1990.

Burton, William C. Burton’s Legal Thesaurus. New York: Macmillan Library Reference, 1998.

Chapin, Bradley. Criminal Justice in Colonial America, 1606–1660. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1983

Eichholz, Alice ed., Red Book: American State, County, and Town Sources, 3rd Ed Provo: Ancestry, 2004.

Evans, Barbara Jean. The New A to Zax: A Comprehensive Genealogical Dictionary for Genealogists and Historians. Second Edition. Champaign: B.J. Evans, 1990

Neagles, James C. and Lila Lee Neagles. Locating Your Immigrant Ancestor: A Guide to Naturalization Records. Logan: Everton Publishers, 1986.

Rapaport, Diane. New England Court Records: A Research Guide for Genealogists and Historians. Burlington: Quill Pen Press, 2006

Rose, Christine. Courthouse Research for Family Historians. San Jose: CR Publications, 2004.

Schaefer, Christina. Guide to Naturalization Records of the United States. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Company, 1997.

Szucs, Loretto Dennis, and Sandra Luebking. The Archives: A Guide to the National Archives Field Branches. Salt Lake City: Ancestry Publishing, 1988.

Thank you to Michael Strauss for contributing to these notes and sharing his expertise!

This free podcast is sponsored by:

MyHeritage

MyHeritage.com is the place to make connections with relatives overseas, particularly with those who may still live in your ancestral homeland. Visit www.MyHeritage.com

Rootsmagic

Lisa Louise Cooke uses and recommends RootsMagic family history software. Visit www.RootsMagic.com

 

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