Family history can be found in many places. We turn to steadfast repositories such as libraries, archives and historical societies. And these days we can also search online at free genealogy websites like FamilySearch, and subscription websites like MyHeritage and Ancestry. All have something unique to offer.
Most importantly, we start our search at home, talking to our oldest relatives and combing through old family papers. We then turn our attention to the family photo albums and scrapbook on the bookshelf, and old home movies if we are lucky enough to have them.
The great news is that the closets in your home are not the only place where you can potentially find old film footage pertaining to your family’s past. The largest online video repository in the world is YouTube (which is owned by Google), and it is the perfect place to look for film. That’s why I’m so excited to share some of my YouTube search strategies from my new book The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox, 3rd Edition. These strategies can help you find old home movies (from your family or someone else’s family that came in contact with your family), news and newsreel films, documentaries, amateur and professional film footage, and countless other subjects that can shed more light on your family’s history.
How to Find Family History on YouTube in 5 Steps
Does finding your family history on YouTube sound unlikely? Believe me, it’s not. YouTube is a treasure trove if you know how to search it. Here are 5 steps from my Google Search Methodology for Genealogy and how to apply them specifically to YouTube.
Step #1. Create a Search Plan
Just like genealogy research, successful Googling, even on YouTube, requires a plan. Rather than searching willy-nilly, take a few moments to determine what it is you hope to find. Having a search plan will save you a lot of time and frustration!
The key to a good research question and plan is to be specific. This means that instead of just searching for family names or places, you have a specific event, place, and / or time frame in mind.
Below is a great example of searching with a specific plan in mind that I received from one of my Genealogy Gems Podcast listeners a while back. I have bolded the keywords that she incorporated into her YouTube search.
From Carol K.: “I really enjoyed (Genealogy Gems) Podcast (episode) #223, particularly the segment with David Haas MD. (Editor’s note: that episode covers Dr. Haas’ vast collection of old home movies and his quest to upload them all to YouTube.)
I had tried researching YouTube for something about my family, including where they settled in Connecticut. I had not come up with much when I decide to search my dad’s ship, The USS Tuscaloosa (Image 1).
Image 1: Carol’s father, Mario Ponte, served on the USS Tuscaloosa
My dad, Mario Ponte, served in the Navy from 1936-1939 (Image 2).
Image 2: Mario DaRin Ponte beside the USS Tuscaloosa – July 27, 1937
I knew he had been on a Goodwill South American Cruisein1939 (Image 3) as he talked about it often and I even have the Cruise Book from that voyage.
image 3: U.S.S. Tuscaloosa South American Good Will Cruise route April – June 1939
On a goodwill tour of South America in 1939, three US cruisers found little goodwill in this angry sea. Newsreel cameras aboard the USS San Francisco recorded this epic struggle of the ships which included the USS Quincy and USS Tuscaloosa.
I don’t recall my father ever mentioning this to me, but my husband said he had heard the story. I only wish my dad were here to share this memory with me. At least, I have been able to share this treacherous event with many in my family.
When you see the tossing, turning and huge waves in the video, I feel they were lucky to have survived. Just think, if they hadn’t, I wouldn’t be here to tell this story today.
Thanks Lisa and David. I’m now convinced that YouTube can be used for genealogy and to add to our stories.”
Carol’s fascinating success can be directly tied to the fact that she developed a research plan focused on specific information.
2. Craft Your YouTube Search Query
As you can see, Carol didn’t just search YouTube for her Dad’s name. In fact, unless your ancestor was famous in some way, that is likely not a strategy that will pay off.
Instead, she assembled the pertinent information and used that in her query. Here are the keywords and phrases I pulled from her email:
The USS Tuscaloosa
Goodwill South American Cruisein1939
Navy from 1936-1939
I included her dad’s name in this list because it never hurts to run your ancestor’s name through a search just in case something pops up. You never know what might be on YouTube. For example, perhaps a childhood friend has uploaded an old home movie to YouTube and named him as being in the movie too!
When conducting your initial YouTube search, include all the important information. If the results are unsatisfactory, you can always remove or add search terms. Since we can’t be sure what if anything is on YouTube pertaining to our research subject, we have to be flexible, and that means expecting to run several variations of our search. We’ll talk more about that in step 3.
In Carol’s case, her research plan was focused on finding a video pertaining to the U.S.S. Tuscaloosa’s Goodwill cruise that her father participated in. She could start with a search such as:
USS Tuscaloosa Goodwill South American Cruise in 1939
The results for this search query are excellent and include the video that Carol found:
Image 4: YouTube search for family history
3. Analyze Your YouTube Search Results
Even though these results successfully delivered the video that satisfied our research plan, we would miss tremendous opportunity if we didn’t take a few extra moments to further analyze the results. You never know what else might be out there!
Here are just a few of the things you should be looking for when reviewing your YouTube results:
LOOK FOR: Should I be more specific in my search query?
Look at our search results (Image 4 above). What stands out to me is that there appear to be many different videos on YouTube about war time ships and cruisers. This is great for family historians, but it means that there are more results to look through than we might have expected.
As you have probably experienced in the past, not all the words in our search query are included in every search result we receive. There is a way to quickly and easily find only videos that specifically mention the words and phrases we want to find. By putting quotation marks around “U.S.S. Tuscaloosa” we can tell YouTube to only give us videos that mention that exact phrase.
When Google searching (and Google is the search engine under the hood of YouTube), quotation marks function as a search operator. They tell Google specific instructions about what to do with our word or phrase. In this case, they tell Google that the phrase is mandatory, and must appear exactly as typed and spelled. The one exception is the periods in U.S.S. Generally speaking, Google disregards punctuation, so it ignores the periods. It doesn’t matter whether you include them or not.
It is important to note that operators don’t always work as consistently in YouTube as they do in regular searches at Google.com. That being said, it’s great to have a variety of tools that we can use to improve our searches, and they are definitely worth a try. My book includes a wide range of additional search operators and how to use them.
Running a second search on “USS Tuscaloosa” opens many new video opportunities (Image 5):
Image 5: Search results for a query containing the quotation marks search operator.
This search not only includes the 1939 tour, but also other videos of the ship that may also be applicable to the family’s history. As you can see, sometimes less words in a search is more!
LOOK FOR: What do the unwanted video results have in common? Sometimes you may notice that you are receiving many results that are not a good match for what you are looking for. When this happens, take a look at your results and try to come up with words that are associated with the unwanted videos, and have no relevance to your goal.
Image 6 (below) is an example of search results in YouTube for the following query:
USS Tuscaloosa Goodwill Cruise in 1939
Image 6: Identify unwanted videos and words in the YouTube search results
While the results page includes a few good matches, it also includes current videos about quarantines on ships which is a viral topic at the time of this writing. Since these are not applicable to our search plan, we will want to eliminate them, and we will do that in Step 4.
4. Improve Upon Your YouTube Search Results
In a case like the one above (Image 6) where you are receiving several video results not applicable to your research goal, you can try literally subtract the unwanted words that you identified in Step 3 from your search. In most cases, this should remove the videos that contain those words in their title or description.
To do this, use the minus sign (-) search operator in conjunction with the word. Here’s an example of how we can do that with this search:
USS Tuscaloosa Goodwill Cruise in 1939 -quarantine
This search will remove the results that mention quarantine.
You can subtract multiple words from your query if you wish. Each word should have a minus sign touching it, and there should be a space between each subtracted word as in this example:
USS Tuscaloosa Goodwill Cruise in 1939 -quarantine -princess -coronavirus
Googling, whether at YouTube, Google.com or any of the other free Google tools, is an art form, not a black and white science. We need to try variations in order to learn from what works and what doesn’t. To reach our goals, we need to try adding in more of what we want, and removing what we don’t want. In this case I would also try adding to my query that that cruise was in South America, and that the phrase USS Tuscaloosa is mandatory. Here’s what that search query would look like:
“USS Tuscaloosa” Goodwill South American Cruise in 1939 -quarantine
Remember, we’re not going for perfect results, we’re mining all the different “veins” in the YouTube gold mine by running multiple versions of the same basic query. Feel free to experiment with mixing and matching keywords and operators. The results may be worth it!
Learn more about Google Search operators in my video:
GOOGLE GURU TIP: Conduct each variation of your search in a new browser tab. This allows you to compare the results side-by-side while retaining each query, making it easy to return to the queries that are performing the best.
You can also potentially improve upon your YouTube search results by using the Tools button to reveal the secondary filter menu. (Image 7)
Image 7: Click “Filter” to reveal the YouTube search filter options
These filters won’t prove useful in every case, but they do offer some handy options for narrowing the scope of your search.
5. Capitalize on Your Results
When you find a video that meets your research goals, there’s a good chance that the person or company that uploaded and published the video (publishers are called “Creators” by YouTube) may have more videos on that subject. Here’s a quick and easy way to find out.
On the video page, you will see the name of the Creator right below the video in the left corner. (Image 9)
Image 9: More videos found on YouTube
Click the YouTube Creator’s name. This will take you to their YouTube channel. Every Creator who has published a video has a YouTube channel. It’s sort of like their own home page for their videos. There you will be able to see and search any additional videos they have published. Click Videos to see all their videos. (Image 10)
Image 10: More videos on the Creator’s YouTube channel
If the channel has a lot of videos, click Playlists in the channel’s menu to see how they are grouped by topic. You can also search the channel for keywords and phrases by clicking the small magnifying glass icon on the far right end of the menu.
A Bright Future for Family History on YouTube
In Step 3 we analyzed the search results for Carol’s YouTube search. Let’s take another look at those results:
Image 8: Over time new videos are uploaded to YouTube waiting to be found.
It’s interesting to note that in addition to the video that Carol found which was published 4 years ago, another video on this topic was published a year later.
It’s estimated that more than 500 hours of video is being uploaded to YouTube every minute. This is up from the 400 hours per minute announced in 2015 by YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki.
Among that vast storehouse of film footage I’ve found countless videos that have enhanced my family’s story. And readers just like you email me the gems they unearth. I love receiving these success stories. Thank you to Carol for sharing hers! If you make an exciting discovery using these strategies please share them in the Comments. It will inspire us all to continue our search.
The bottom line is that the potential for finding your family history on YouTube grows dramatically minute by minute, so don’t wait another minute!
Show Notes: The FamilySearch Wiki is like an encyclopedia of genealogy! It’s an invaluable free tool that every genealogist needs. However, many folks get frustrated when they try to search the Wiki. In this week’s video premiere I’m going to help you navigate with ease.
Video and Show Notes below
what the Wiki has to offer,
how to access the FamilySearch Wiki
how to navigate the FamilySearch Wiki effectively
and how to overcome the number #1 reason people get frustrated when searching the Wiki!
(00:42) There are two ways to access the FamilySearch Wiki. The first is to visit the website direction at https://www.familysearch.org/wiki. This will take you to the home page of the Wiki. Although you can sign into your free FamilySearch account on this page (in the upper right corner) it isn’t necessary in order to use it.
The second way to access the Wiki is to go to the FamilySearch website. You will need to log into your FamilySearch account or sign up for a free account if you don’t already have one. Once you’re signed in, then in the menu under Search click Research Wiki. This will take you to the same FamilySearch Wiki home page. However, you will see that you are signed in and able to use some of the additional features like participating in discussions, posting and creating watchlists.
On the FamilySearch website: Search > Research Wiki
Searching the Wiki by Location
(01:21) On the home page, what you see a map of the world. This is a great way to search the Wiki because in genealogy, it’s really all about location. We need to know where geographically we want to search for ancestors, and from there we can narrow down the timeframe. Typically, you’ll have a sense of at least in which country you need to be researching. So, the map is typically the best way to start.
The FamilySearch Wiki Home Page
You’ll notice also on the home page, there is a search by place or topic search field. You could bypass using the map, and just start by typing in a place. If you do, you’ll notice that it starts to prompt you on the kinds of things that are commonly searched for. This could be kind of nice if you are really focused on a particular thing such as Italian census records. You can just start typing Italy and see if census is one of the prompts. If it is, simply click it and it will take you right there.
However, generally speaking, the map is the best way to search for records and information that is rooted in a location. Start by clicking the button for the continent, such as North America. Notice that if you go to click on the map itself, it isn’t an interactive map. You’ll need to actually click the button.
From there, select the county from the menu, such as United States, then drill down by state. This will take you to the Wiki entry for that state.
You’ll notice that the FamilySearch Wiki is a lot like Wikipedia. It’s like an encyclopedia of information. But the exciting part is that it’s genealogy specifically! This means you don’t usually have to worry about including the word genealogy in your searches.
Location-based FamilySearch Wiki Pages
Oftentimes, our research ends up taking us to a new location where the next set of great grandparents came from. If we’re not familiar with that location, let alone familiar with what’s available from a genealogical standpoint, that can pose a real challenge. You might be asking questions like when did they start recording birth records? Or did that state conduct a state census? Every state, every country, and every county has different types of records available.
Start your orientation over on the right-hand side of the wiki page. There you’ll typically find an overview box.
(04:15) This is a great place to quickly see what’s available here, and what you could dig into further. If you’re really new to research in this particular area, you might want to start with the guided research link. You may also see links to research strategies, and a record finder.
In the next section of the box you’ll find record types. This is going to be different depending on the area that you’re researching. For example, if they don’t happen to have any military records available you might not see that listed under record types. You should expect to see the most commonly used records included in the list. Click the link to the page for more information on that type of record. It will provide more details on record availability, and where you access the records.
Further down the box you’ll find links to background information on the area. It’s really easy to skim over this in excitement over records. But if you don’t want to get stuck at a brick wall, getting to know the place that you’re researching can make all the difference. Learning the background of an area can help you prepare the right questions to ask. It can help prevent you from looking for something that doesn’t exist or that wasn’t applicable to that area. You may find links to more reading, gazetteers and maps, migration patterns, periodicals, and the law. Understanding the law is going to help you understand why records were created, and who they affected. For example, if your ancestor was under 18 there might be certain records that don’t apply to them. Understanding the parameters of who was affected by the law will help guide you through the records themselves.
Next you’ll see cultural groups that you might expect to find in this area, and links to more specific information about researching them.
Under Resources you’ll find links to archives, libraries, societies, and the family history centers that are available in this particular area.
At the top of the main part of the page you’ll find the Getting Started section. Here you’ll find links to beginning step-by-step research strategies and some of the most popular records for that location such as vital records.
(08:35) You might be wondering who is putting this information together. Well, it starts with experts at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City. These are people who have worked the reference desks and found answers to thousands of patron questions.
Locating and Using the County Wiki Page
(09:22) Back on the state landing page scroll down further to the map of counties. Navigating by location is still important, even when we’ve narrowed it down to the state. Unlike the map on the homepage, you can hover your mouse over each county and click.
County map on the state wiki page
The county pages are where the real magic happens because many records such as birth, marriage, death, and court records are typically available at the county level. Here you’ll find out how to contact or visit the current county courthouse.
One of the most common questions new genealogists ask is “should I be looking at the county where the town is located today, or the county that it was when my ancestors lived there?” Counties certainly do change over time. The answer to the question is that we go to the county at the time that are ancestors lived in the area. In fact, the Wiki page provides the history, or genealogy, of the county. Look for Boundary Changes on the page.
Because these pages are often quite long and dense, use your computer’s Find on Page feature by pressing Control + F (PC) or Command + F (mac) on your keyboard. This gives you a nice little search box at the top of the page. Type in a keyword like Boundary and it will highlight all the locations on the page where the term appears. This is a great way to make quick use of the Wiki. This is also a good trick to use when you don’t see the record type or keyword that you’re looking for in the page’s table of contents. It may be called something else there, but if you search the page for your keyword, it should find it for you. An example of this is that you may not see Birth Records in the TOC because they list Vital Records. However, in the Vital Records section further down the page they definitely mention birth records.
Finding the Dates that Records Began
(14:45) Here’s another reason the wiki is so helpful, and it makes things go so quickly. Remember, we talked about that location is key, but also timeframe. Well, if we are looking for genealogical records, we don’t want to look for a record in this county before they actually started creating those records. The wiki typically provides a nice little chart on each county page showing then some of the most important civil records such as birth, marriage and death were first created.
County record dates at FamilySearch Wiki
Often times civil records began much later than church records. Sometimes you will see an asterisk indicating when statewide registration for these civil records began and then another date indicating when general compliance was enforced. All of this is guiding us to success in finding genealogy records, and it’s saving the headache of investing time looking for records that did not yet exist.
(17:42) Further down the page you’ll find links to places. These may link to town pages on the Wiki, but more likely they will take you to Wikipedia where this information already exists. There will be a small icon indicating that the link will open in a new tab and take you to another website.
Next you’ll likely see a Timeline section which gives you a sense of when the first people settled in the county and who those people were. Again, it provides you more context to better understand the records.
In addition to all these individual records, many of them linked over toFamilySearch, Ancestry or MyHeritage, we see Research Facilities. Why is that so important? Because not all records are going to be online. When we’ve exhausted online records and resources we need to go offline, and there are lots of resources here on the wiki to work with: county archives, family history centers in the local area, libraries, museums, and genealogical societies. The wiki provides contact information and links to their website where you may be able to see a listing of what they have onsite so you can plan your visit.
Other website links may take you sites like USGenWebwhich is a fantastic free genealogy website. It’s organized by location much like the FamilySearch wiki website. Drill down to the state and then the county. You may also see links to the State Archive, or the state’s Memory project, and, of course, the FamilySearch catalog.
How to Overcome the #1 Search Problem
(22:01) The wiki really should be one of your first stops when you’re going to be starting research in a new area. Let’s wrap up with a quick conversation about the wiki’s search box. You could go ahead and put a topic in there. Many people will come in here and they’ll type in marriage records, Randolph, County, Indiana, and they will get a list of results. They don’t look as clear cut as Google results, and they may not all be on topic. This is where we can get lost. I think probably the number one reason why people give up on the wiki is they get these kinds of search results. They realize, wait a second, this isn’t even Indiana, it’s talking about Kentucky! Why am I getting all these? It can be frustrating.
The wrong way to search at the FamilySearch Wiki
This happens because we tried to do it ourselves, with our own keywords. Remember, like most search engines, they’ve indexed their content to make it searchable, so that means they’ve already decided how they want to talk about a particular topic. Rather than just addressing marriage record first, the wiki focuses on the location. Where is this marriage record? So, focus first on the place unless you are just looking for general information on a general genealogy topic such as genealogy software.
Pay attention to the pre-filled suggestions as you type because the wiki is going to suggest what it has in the format it has it. Again, you may want to first go to the country, state or county level page and then look for the record type.
What if you’re looking for marriage records but you don’t see them listed? Well, it might be that the word marriage isn’t the keyword the wiki uses. Or it might be that the type of record you’re looking for is a state or federal record. That’s another reason why the find on page feature (Ctrl + F) is so helpful. Don’t be discouraged if you don’t see what you want listed in the table of contents. It may just be a keyword issue. Let the work that they’ve already done in organizing their materials guide you. You’ll be more successful and also avoid frustration. The FamilySearch Wiki is just too good of a resource to miss.
Learn more about using Family Search at Genealogy Gems
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.
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.