My genealogy research looks a lot like yours. Some family tree lines go back to pre-Revolutionary War. Other lines are richly researched well into the early 19th century.
And then there’s THAT family line. You know the one I mean. The one where the courthouse containing the records we need has burned down, or the records were microfilmed ages ago but are still sitting in the FamilySearch granite vault due to copyright issues. Or worst of all, it appears the needed records just don’t exist.
Don’t let these obstacles allow you to give up hope.
Every day, new records are being discovered and digitized. Records that have been languishing in a copyright stalemate might suddenly be cleared for publication. Or a cousin could contact you out of the blue and has the letters your grandmother sent hers. We never know when the records we’ve been waiting for, searching for, and yearning for, will bubble up to the surface.
Today I’m happy to share my story of a recent breakthrough that I never saw coming. Follow along with me as I take newly unearthed rocks and use tools to turn them into sparkling gems.
This is Almost Embarrassing
My one, agonizing family line that stops short in its tracks ends with my great grandfather Gustave Sporowski.
Gustave and Louise Sporowski (personal collection)
It’s almost embarrassing to admit. I’ve been at this nearly my whole life, and genealogy is my career for goodness sake! But there it is, a family tree with lovely far-reaching limbs except for this little stub of a branch sticking out on my maternal grandmother’s side.
I was about eight years old the first time I asked my grandma about her parents and their families. (Yes, this genealogy obsession goes back that far with me!) I still have the original page of cryptic notes she scratched out for me during that conversation.
Excerpt from Grandma’s original notes. (Personal collection)
She had several nuggets of information about her mother’s family. However, when it came to her father Gustave, she only recalled that he was the youngest of seven brothers. No names came to mind. I’ve always felt that if I could just identify some of the brothers, one of them may have records that provide more details about their parents.
According to his Petition for Naturalization, Gustave Sporowksi and Louise Nikolowski were married in LutgenDortmund, Germany. This indicated that both moved west from East Prussia before emigrating. While I knew Louise’s immediate family were in the LutgenDortmund area as well, I had no idea whether Gustave moved there on his own or with his family.
Gustave Sporowski’s Petition for Naturalization.
Gus (as he was later known) emigrated from Germany in 1910, landing at Ellis Island. He toiled in the coal mines of Gillespie, Illinois, and eventually earned enough money to move his wife and children west to California in 1918.
After filing his papers and years of waiting, he proudly became a U.S. citizen in 1940.
On that paperwork, he clearly states his birthplace as Kotten, Germany. You won’t find this location on a map today. In 1881, the year he was born, the area was East Prussia. I remember the hours I spent with gazeteers many years ago trying to locate that little village nestled just within the border of Kreis Johannisburg. Being so close to the border meant that he could have attended church there or in a neighboring district.
The records in the area are scarce, and today the entire area is in Poland.
Surprisingly, the records situation is quite the opposite with his wife Louise, also from East Prussia. She lived not far away in Kreis Ortelsburg, and the records for the church her family attended in Gruenwald are plentiful. I’ve managed to go many more generations back with her family.
And so, poor Gus alone sits in my family tree.
I periodically search to see if there’s anything new that has surfaced, but to no avail. I even hired a professional genealogical firm to review my work and suggest new avenues. I guess it is good news to hear you’ve pursued all known available leads, but it’s not very rewarding.
Over time, we tend to revisit tough cases like this less frequently. They become quiet. Digital dust begins to settle on the computer files.
And then it all changes.
German Address Books at Ancestry.com
I regularly make the rounds of the various genealogy websites, making note of new additions to their online collections. I typically publish the updates on a weekly basis here on the Genealogy Gems blog. It makes my day when readers like you comment or email, bursting with excitement about how one of the collections I mentioned busted their brick wall. I love my job.
This week I’m the one who is bursting!
It started simply enough. My third stop on my regular records round-up tour was Ancestry.com. The list of new records was particularly robust this week. The word “Germany” always catches my eye, and the second item on the list jumped out at me:
“Recently Added and Updated Collections on Ancestry,” Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 05 Sept 2019)
I should have had a healthy dose of skepticism that I would be fortunate enough to find anything. But to be perfectly honest, I felt instinctively that I would! Have you ever just had that feeling that your ancestors are sitting right there ready to be found? If you’ve been researching your family history for a while, then I’m guessing you have. Such a nice feeling, isn’t it?
So, I clicked, and I simply entered Sporowski in the last name field and clicked Search.
Experience has taught me that there haven’t been a lot of folks through history with this surname, so I’m interested in taking a look at anyone who pops up in the results. And yippie aye oh, did they ever pop up!
The results list include 31 people with the surname of Sporowski!
These names came from the pages of address books much like the city directories so common in the U.S. Since this collection was new to me, I took a moment to read up on the history.
GENEALOGY RESEARCH TIP: Learning the History of the Genealogy Record Collection
To truly understand what you are looking at when reviewing search results, we need to acquaint ourselves with the history of the collection.
Why was it created?
What does it include?
What does it not include?
Look to the left of the search results and click Learn more about this database.
It’s definitely worth clicking this link because the next page may also include a listing of Related Data Collections, some of which you might not be aware. These could prove very useful, picking up the pace to finding more records.
In the case of foreign language records, look for a link to the Resource Center for that country. There you may find translation help and tips for interpreting handwriting and difficult-to-read script.
Ancestry Help Features
On the Learn more about this database page, I learned some important things about these search results.
First, not every citizen was listed. Only heads of households were included. This means that wives and children would not appear. I did find some widows, though, because they were the head of their household.
Second, Optical Character Recognition (OCR) was used on this collection. Ancestry suggests looking for errors and providing corrections. But this information about OCR also implies something even more important to the genealogist. We must keep in mind that OCR is not perfect. In this case, I planned on browsing the collection after reviewing the search results to ensure I didn’t miss anyone. This would include targeting people listed in the “S” section of directories for towns I might expect the family to be.
I was particularly thrilled to see the name “Emil Sporowski” on the list.
Several months ago I found a World War I Casualty list from a newspaper published in 1918.
On it was listed Emil Sporowski and he was from the village of Kotten. This was the first mention of Gustave’s birthplace in the record of another Sporowski that I had ever found. So, you can imagine my delight as I stared at his name in the address book search results.
The icing on that cake was that he was listed in the address book of Bochum. That town name was very familiar to me because I had seen it on a few old family photos in Louise Sporowski’s photo album. Although the photos did not have names written on them, I could easily identify the folks who had the facial characteristics of Louise Nikolowski’s clan, and those sporting the large eyes with heavy lids like Gus.
Photo from Louise Nikolowski’s photo album.
Spreading the German Addresses Out with Spreadsheets
With one and a half pages delivering a total of 31 Sporowski names, I knew I had some work ahead of me to tease them apart. This got me thinking of Genealogy Gems Podcast episode that I’m currently working on, which features a conversation with professional genealogist Cari Taplin. When I asked Cari how she organizes her data, she told me that she uses spreadsheets. I’m not typically a spreadsheet kind of gal, but in this case, I could see the benefits. Spreadsheets offer a way to get everybody on one page. And with the power of Filters and Sorting you slice and dice the data with ease. My first sort was by town.
My Excel spreadsheet tracking German Address Books search results at Ancestry.com
GENEALOGY RESEARCH TIP: Free Genealogy Gems Download
Click here to download the simple yet effective spreadsheet I used for this research project. If you find your German ancestors in this collection, it’s ready to use. Otherwise, feel free to modify to suit your needs in a similar situation.
As you can see in the spreadsheet, these address books include occupations. For example, Emil was listed both as a Schmied and a Schlosser. A simple way to add the English translation to my spreadsheet was to go to Google.com and search Google Translate. Words and phrases can be translated right from the results page.
Translating the Occupation found in the German Address Books using Google Translate (Available at https://translate.google.com. Accessed 05 Sept 2019)
You can also find several websites listing German occupations by Googling old german occupations.
I quickly ran into abbreviations that were representing German words. For example, Lina Sporowski is listed with as Wwe .
A Google search of german occupations abbreviations didn’t bring a website to the top of the list that actually included abbreviations. However, by adding one of the abbreviations to the search such as “Wwe.” it easily retrieved web pages actually featuring abbreviations.
GENEALOGY RESEARCH TIP: Use Search Operators when Googling
Notice that I placed the abbreviation in quotation marks when adding it to my Google search query. Quotation marks serve as search operators, and they tell Google some very important information about the word or phrase they surround.
The quotation marks tell Google that this word or phrase must appear in every search result. (If you’ve ever googled several words only to find that some results include some of the words, and other results include others, this will solve your problem.)
They also tell Google that the word(s) MUST be spelled exactly the way it appears on each search result. This is particularly helpful when searching an abbreviation like Wwe. which isn’t actually a word. Without the quotation marks, you will likely get a response from Google at the top of the search results page asking you if you meant something else.
Katherine was my guest on Genealogy Gems Premium Podcast Episode #151 available exclusively to our Premium eLearning Members. She’s also written a couple of articles for Genealogy Gems on German translation:
As it turns out, Wwe. stands for Widow. This tells me that Lina’s husband was deceased by 1961.
Finding the German Addresses in Google Earth
The most glorious things found in these old address books are the addresses themselves!
Google Earth is the perfect tool to not only find the locations but clarify the addresses. Many were abbreviated, but Google Earth made quick work of the task.
Unlike other free Google Tools, Google Earth is available in a variety of forms:
Free downloadable software
Google Earth in the Chrome Web browser
A mobile app
Each has powerful geographic features, but I always recommend using the software. The web version and app don’t have all the tools available in the software. All versions require an internet connection. You can download the software here.
In the Google Earth search box I typed in the address. Don’t worry if you don’t have the full address or if you think it may be spelled incorrectly. Google Earth will deliver a results list of all the best options that most closely match.
In my case, reliable Google Earth not only gave me complete addresses, but also the correct German letters.
I went through the entire list. As I found each location in Google Earth, I checked it off on the spreadsheet.
Addresses found in German Address Books at Ancestry.com marked in the spreadsheet
GENEALOGY RESEARCH TIP: Create a Folder in Google Earth
When you have several locations like this to plot, I recommend creating a folder in the Places panel in Google Earth. It’s super easy to do and will help you stay organized. Here’s how:
Right-click (PC) on the MyPlaces icon at the top of the Places panel (left side of the Google Earth screen)
Select Add > Folder in the pop-up menu
A New Folder dialog box will appear
Type the name of your folder
Click OK to close the folder
You can drag and drop the folder wherever you want it in the Places panel
Click to select the folder before placing your Placemarks. That way each placemark will go in that folder. But don’t worry, if you get a placemark in the wrong spot, just drag and drop it into the folder.
The beauty of Google Earth as that you can start to visualize your data in a whole new way. Zooming out reveals these new findings within the context of previous location-based research I had done on related families. As you can see in the image below, all the Sporowskis that I found in the German Address books at Ancestry.com are clustered just five miles from where photos were taken that appear in Louise Sporowski’s photo album.
I’ve Only Just Begun to Discover my German Ancestors at Ancestry.com
We’ve covered a lot of ground today, but this is just the beginning. There are additional sources to track down, timelines to create, photos to match up with locations, and so much more. In many ways, I’ve only scratched the surface of possibilities. But I need to stop writing so I can keep searching! 😊
I hope you’ve enjoyed taking this journey with me. Did you pick up some gems along the way that you are excited to use? Please leave a comment below! Let us all know which tips and tools jumped out at you, and any gems that you found.
Elevenses with Lisa Episode 21 Video and Show Notes
Live show air date: August 20, 2020
Join me for Elevenses with Lisa, the online video series where we take a break, visit and learn about genealogy and family history.
How to Find Free Genealogy Resources
In the genealogy community it’s often said, “Only a fraction of genealogical records are online.” That’s true indeed, but it’s not a reason not to start your search online. A more helpful and accurate piece of advice would be “while not everything is online, all search for genealogical information starts online.”
The reason for this is simple. Online research before you go will reveal:
If the materials are available at a more convenient location
If the materials are available somewhere online for free
The call number, location, and other specific information you need to quickly access the materials once you arrive.
Details about gaining access to the facility and materials.
The last bullet point above will help you avoid the disappointment of discovering an unforeseen closure, or that the specific records you need are actually help at a satellite location.
New genealogical information and records are uploaded daily to the internet. Some of this information is available for free. In this article and episode we will cover strategic ways to locate and access free genealogy online.
The Amount of Data Continues to Increase – Read more about the growth of online information here.
The Path of Least Resistance to Free Genealogy
Most genealogists want to obtain records at the lowest available cost with the least amount of travel. Therefore, always starting your search online just makes good sense.
Here’s our path of least resistance:
Free and Online: FamilySearch, Google, WorldCat
Online and Subscription: Ancestry, MyHeritage, Findmypast, niche sites
Free and Locally Offline: Libraries, Archives, Universities
Offline and Distant: Examples include the National Archives, Allen County Library, Family History Library, NEHGS
The FamilySearch Catalog: New digitized images are added daily from microfilms & digital camera operators. These include books, maps, compiled family histories, and more. The catalog also includes materials that are not online but are available at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City or through Inter-library loan.
The FamilySearch Wiki is a free online genealogical guide comprised of more than 93,000 articles. It covers 244 countries, territories, and islands. It includes links to genealogy databases and online resources as well as how-to information.
Use the FamilySearch Wiki Watchlist to follow pages of research interest. Here’s how to watch Wiki pages for new and free genealogy content:
Log in with your free FamilySearch account
navigate to the desired page
click the Watchlist link in the upper right corner of the page.
Look for the Watchlist link, and the blue buttons that lead to free online genealogy records for that location.
Google is still your best bet for finding sources both online and offline.
You can dramatically improve your search results by incorporating search operators into your search. Watch episode 13 of Elevenses with Lisa to learn about how to use search operators when googling for genealogy.
Set up free Google Alerts to be on the lookout for new and updated search results. You’ll receive them by email, and you can control the frequency.
Google Alerts do the work of searching for free genealogy for you.
How to Create a Google Alert:
Highlight and copy (Control C on Windows or Command C on Mac) the search query that you typed into the Google search box
Go to www.google.com/alerts
Sign into your free Google account
Paste (Control V or Command V) your search query into the Search Query box on the Google Alerts page
Select the Result Type you desire (ex. Everything, News, etc.)
Select how often you wish to receive alerts
Select How Many results you want to receive (I recommend Only the Best Results)
Enter / Select the email address you want your alerts to be sent to
Click the Create Alert button
Partnerships Make Free Genealogy Available
Many of the genealogy giants enter partnerships with each other in order to facilitate digitization and indexing of genealogical records. This means that the same materials may be found in different locations on the web, and sometimes for free.
17,900 subscribing member libraries in 123 countries collectively maintain WorldCat’s database which is the world’s largest bibliographic database.
Use WorldCat to check that you are indeed accessing the resource from the most convenient repository and if it’s available for free. Here’s how:
Run your search
Click an item
Under Find a Copy in the Library enter your zip code
The library closest to you will be listed at the top
Once you get your search results, look to the left in the Formats box. There you can quickly narrow down to only items that are online by clicking boxes like DownloadableArticle. Some of these may require a log in on the website you are referred to.
To find free records at MyHeritage.com, go to https://tinyurl.com/LisaMyHeritage. In the footer menu of the website, click on Historical Records. Then fill in your search criteria. (Update: If you don’t see Historical Records in the footer, go to Research > Collection Catalog and search on the keyword “free.”) Scroll down the search results and look for the green free tags.
To find free records at Findmypast which specialized in British genealogy but also includes records from around the world, go to https://tinyurl.com/FMPLisa.
(Some links in our articles are affiliate links. We will be compensated at no additional cost to use when you use them. This makes it possible for us to bring this free show to you. Thank you!)
Google Site Search Can Help Locate Free Genealogy
A site search works like many search operators as previously discussed in Elevenses with Lisa episode 13 (watch and read here.) It provides Google with specific instructions about the type of search you want to conduct with your search terms and keywords.
This Site search tip comes from Lisa Louise Cooke’s book The Genealogists’s Google Toolbox.
Site search runs your query only on the specified website. This is extremely helpful and efficient if:
you have a particular website in mind that you want to search,
you aren’t having success using the search field provided by the website,
the website you want to search doesn’t have a search field.
Here’s an example of a Site search:
Free Pennsylvania site:ancestry.com
Try running the search above for yourself. You’ll find results that include many free genealogy records pertaining to Pennsylvania. Substitute the words to meet your search needs.
Construct a Site search for Free Genealogy by first typing in the words and phrases you wish to search for. Include the word free. Leave the appropriate spacing between them and follow the last item with a space. Then type site: and add the website home page address (URL). You can copy the URL and simply paste it in place. There is no space between the colon and the URL. And note that www is not required.
Searching for Offline Local Sources with Free Genealogy Information
To find what’s local and free:
Search WorldCat.org (be sure to use the Zip Code filtering to find the genealogy materials at the location closest to you.)
Use Google to search.
Find your local Family History Center here. These centers have unique free resources as well as free access to some subscription genealogy websites.
When you find a library, archive or other repository, visit their website and look for:
Databases they offer
Their online catalog to plan your research
Other associated libraries
Details on planning a visit
Get Free Genealogy Help on Facebook
Search for Random Acts of Genealogical Kindness (RAOGK) on Facebook.