Ultimate Guide to 1890 Census and Substitute Records

Video & Show Notes 

Click the video player to watch episode 54 of Elevenses with Lisa about the 1890 census and substitute records. Below you’ll find the detailed show notes with all the website links I mention. Premium Members will find the downloadable ad-free PDF cheat sheet of these show notes at the bottom of this page in the Resources section, along with my BONUS 1890 Census Gap Worksheet. 

What Happened to the 1890 Census

The census shows us our ancestors grouped in families, making it a valuable resource for genealogy. Soon the 1950 census will be available, but for now the most current census publicly available in 1940. In it we may find, depending on our age, ourselves, our parents, our grandparents, and our great parents. In many cases it’s quick and rewarding to make your way back in time to  the 1890 census which was taken starting June 1, 1890.  And that’s where the trail hits a bump. In January 1921 a large fire broke out in the Commerce Building in Washington DC where the 1890 census records were stored, and most were destroyed as a result. Only 6,160 individual names remain in the remnants. (Learn more about the destruction of the 1890 census at the National Archives.)

Prior to the 1890 U.S. Federal Census, the last census taken was in 1880. With about 99% of the 1890 being destroyed as the result of the fire, this leaves a 20 year gap in the census (1880 – 1900.)

Much can happen in a span of twenty years. For example, your ancestors could have been born and reached adulthood. Filling in their timeline for this period requires a bit more effort, but the results are worth it.

In this video and article we’ll cover:

  • How to find the remaining fragments of the 1890 population enumeration
  • What you can learn from the 1890 census records
  • Lesser known 1890 census schedules that can still be found.
  • The best 1890 substitute records and how to find them.

Surviving 1890 Federal Census Population Schedules

A very small portion of the 1890 census has survived, but it’s more than just the population schedule. Here are the six types of records still available.

1. 1890 Federal Population Schedule Fragments

How to find the records:

List of the locations covered by the surviving 1890 federal census:

Alabama: Perryville Beat No.11 (Perry County) and Severe Beat No.8 (Perry County)

District of Columbia: Q Street, 13th St., 14th St., R Street, Q Street, Corcoran St., 15th St., S Street, R Street, and Riggs Street, Johnson Avenue, and S Street

Georgia: Columbus (Muscogee County)

Illinois: Mound Township (McDonough County)

Minnesota: Rockford (Wright County)

New Jersey: Jersey City (Hudson County)

New York: Brookhaven Township (Suffolk County) and Eastchester (Westchester County)

North Carolina: South Point and River Bend Townships (Gaston County), Township No. 2 (Cleveland County)

Ohio: Cincinnati (Hamilton County) and Wayne Township (Clinton County)

South Dakota: Jefferson Township (Union County)

Texas: J.P. No. 6, Mountain Peak, Ovilla Precinct (Ellis County), Precinct No. 5 (Hood County), No. 6 and J.P. No. 7 (Rusk County), Trinity Town and Precinct No. 2 (Trinity County), and Kaufman (Kaufman County)

Questions Asked in the 1890 U.S. Federal Census
The following questions were asked by the census taker:

  1. Name
  2. Age
  3. Sex
  4. Address
  5. Number of families in the house
  6. Number of persons in the house
  7. Number of persons in the family
  8. Relationship to head of family
  9. Race: white, black, mulatto, quadroon, octoroon, Chinese, Japanese, or Indian
  10. Marital status
  11. Whether married during the year
  12. Total children born to mother
  13. Number of children living
  14. Birthplace
  15. Birthplace of parents
  16. If foreign born, how many years in the United States
  17. Naturalized or in the process of naturalization
  18. Profession, trade, or occupation
  19. Months unemployed during census year
  20. Able to read and write
  21. Speak English; if not, language or dialect spoken
  22. Suffering from acute or chronic disease (if so, name of disease and length of time afflicted)
  23. Defective in mind, sight, hearing, or speech
  24. Crippled, maimed, or deformed (with name of defect)
  25. Prisoner, convict, homeless child, or pauper
  26. Home is rented or owned by the head or a member of the family
  27. (if so, whether mortgaged)
  28. Head of family a farmer, if he or a family member rented or owned the farm
  29. If mortgaged, the post office address of the owner

2. Schedules for Union Soldiers & Widows

According to the National Archives, “The U.S. Pension Office requested this special enumeration to help Union veterans locate comrades to testify in pension claims and to determine the number of survivors and widows for pension legislation. (Some congressmen also thought it scientifically useful to know the effect of various types of military service upon veterans’ longevity.) To assist in the enumeration, the Pension Office prepared a list of veterans’ names and addresses from their files and from available military records held by the U.S. War Department.

Index and images of schedules enumerating Union veterans and widows of veterans of the Civil War for the states of Kentucky through Wyoming. Except for some miscellaneous returns, data for the states of Alabama through Kansas do not exist. Some returns include U.S. Naval Vessels and Navy Yards. The schedules are from Record Group 15, Records of the Veterans Administration and is NARA publication M123.

Nearly all of the schedules for the states of Alabama through Kansas and approximately half of those for Kentucky appear to have been destroyed before transfer of the remaining schedules to the National Archives in 1943.”

How to find the records:

Search the United States Census of Union Veterans and Widows of the Civil War, 1890 (index & images) at FamilySearch.

These records can tell you:

  • State, county and district where census was taken
  • Date census was taken
  • Full name of surviving soldier, sailor, marine, or widow
  • Rank, company, regiment or vessel
  • Date of enlistment
  • Date of discharge
  • Residence
  • Disability
  • Length of service in years, months, and days
  • Remarks

Learn more:

3. Schedules Oklahoma Territories

The 1890 Oklahoma Territorial Census lists people who lived in the Oklahoma Territory. The seven counties making up the Oklahoma Territory at the time are listed below. Note the number as they were often listed only by these number on the census.

  1. Logan County
  2. Oklahoma County
  3. Cleveland County
  4. Canadian County
  5. Kingfisher County
  6. Payne County
  7. Beaver County

How to find the records:

4. Selected Delaware African American Schedule

One of the primary uses of the census by the government is to compile statistical reports using the data gathered. Many of these can be found online at places like Google Books.

The Delaware African American Schedule came about because of one of these statistical reports. According to the National Archives, in 1901 the Chief Statistician for Agriculture wrote a report about agriculture in the state of Delaware. Just before it was to be published, some of the conclusions reached in the report were disputed. The controversy centered around what was then referred to as “Negro” farmers. The results was that additional research was conducted in an effort to find all “Negro” farmers in the 1890 and 1900 Delaware census records. The dust up over the statistical report was fortunate indeed because these records are now available.

How to get the records:

The list is roughly in alphabetical order according to surname and contains the following information:

  • Name
  • Census Year
  • Enumeration District (ED) Number
  • ED Description (locality and county)
  • Occupation

5. Statistics of Lutheran Congregation & Statistical Information for the U.S.

These record collection offers limited usefulness because they don’t name people. However, if you have questions about Lutheran ancestors around 1890 or would like more contextual information about the time period, they might be worth a look.

Statistics of Lutheran Congregation reproduces a list of each Lutheran church or local organization compiled by the Census Office from information submitted by officials of the Lutheran officials.

How to find the records:

The National Archives – Contact the National Archives regarding National Archives Microfilm Publication M2073, Statistics of Congregations of Lutheran Synods, 1890 (1 roll).  Records are arranged by synod, then state, then locality.

For each church or local organization, the following information is given in seven columns:
(1) town or city
(2) county
(3) name of organization
(4) number or type of church edifice
(5) seating capacity
(6) value of church property
(7) number of members.

6. Statistical information for the entire United States

Statistical reports were compiled and analyzed by the Census Office after the 1890 census was completed. These massive statistical reports are available in National Archives Microfilm Publication T825, Publications of the Bureau of the Census.

How to find the records:

Google Books – Some of the statistical reports have been digitized and are available for free on Google Books. One of the most interesting is the Report on the Social Statistics of Cities in the United States at the Eleventh Census: 1890.

Best Substitute Records for the 1890 Census

Now that we’ve scoured every inch of available records remaining from the 1890 U.S. Federal Census, it’s time to go on the hunt for substitute records. We’ll be focusing on the best available and easiest to find resources.

1885 & 1895 State Census Records:

The U.S. federal government was not alone in taking the census. Some states also took their own state census. These were usually conducted in the years between the federal censuses, most commonly on the “5” such as 1875, and 1885. You may find some as far back as 1825 and as recent as 1925, as in the case of the state of New York.

How to find the records:

Look for state census records at state archives, state historical societies, and state libraries. Many are also conveniently searchable online, most commonly at FamilySearch (free) and Ancestry (subscription.)

Arizona, U.S., Territorial Census Records, 1882 (Ancestry)

Kansas 1895 (FamilySearch)

Kansas 1895 (Kansas State Historical Society)

Colorado State Census 1885 (FamilySearch)

Colorado State Census 1885 (Ancestry)

Michigan State Census 1894 (FamilySearch)

Michigan State Census 1894 (Ancestry)

Minnesota State Census 1885 (FamilySearch)

Minnesota State Census 1895 (FamilySearch)

Minnesota Territorial and State Censuses 1849 – 1905 (Ancestry – select year, then county)

Minnesota Territorial Census records from 1849, 1850, 1853, 1855, and 1857 and Minnesota State Census records from 1865, 1875, 1885, 1895 and 1905 (Minnesota Historical Society)

Florida State Census 1885 (FamilySearch)

Florida State Census 1885 (Ancestry)

Iowa State Census, 1885 (FamilySearch)

Iowa State Census, 1885 (Ancestry)

More on the Iowa 1885  and 1895 censuses from the Iowa Data Center

Iowa State Census 1895 (FamilySearch)

Iowa State Census 1895 (Ancestry)

Nebraska State Census 1885 (FamilySearch)

Nebraska State Census 1885 (Ancestry)

New Jersey State Census 1885 (FamilySearch)

New Jersey State Census 1885 (Ancestry

New Jersey State Census 1895 (FamilySearch

New Jersey State Census 1895 (Ancestry)

New York State Census 1892 (FamilySearch)

New York State Census 1892 (Ancestry)

New York City Police Census 1890 (FamilySearch)

New York City Police Census 1890 (Ancestry)

Rhode Island State Census 1885 (FamilySearch)

Rhode Island, U.S., State Censuses, 1865-1935 (Ancestry – Filter by year then county)

Wisconsin State Census, 1885 (FamilySearch)

Wisconsin State Census 1895 (FamilySearch)

Wisconsin, U.S., State Censuses, 1855-1905 (Ancestry)

Missouri, U.S., State Census Collection, 1844-1881 (Ancestry – Filter by year then county)

Missouri, U.S., State Census Collection, 1844-1881 (FamilySearch)

South Dakota, U.S., Territorial Census, 1885 (Ancestry)

South Dakota, U.S., Territorial Census, 1895 (Ancestry)

Lisa’s Pro Tip: Get a Bit More with Mortality Schedules

Do you happen to have someone in your family tree who was alive and well in the 1880 census but nowhere to be found in the 1900 census? Official death records may not have been available during this time frame where they lived, compounding the problem.

The U.S. Federal Censuses from 1850-1880 included a mortality schedule counting the people who had died in the previous year. Since the 1880 census began on June 1, “previous year” means the 12 months preceding June 1, or June 1 (of the previous year) to May 31 (of the census year).

Ancestry has a database of these schedules which fall just before the 20 year time frame we are trying to fill. However, this collection also happens to include Mortality Schedules from three State Censuses: Colorado, Florida and Nebraska. There were conducted in 1885. They weren’t mandatory so there are only a few, but if you happen to be researching in one of these states, you just might get lucky.

How to find the records:

While you’re searching, be aware that not all of the information recorded on the census is included in the searchable index. This means that it is important to view the image and don’t just rely on the indexed information.

Ancestry 1890 Census Substitute Database

Ancestry has compiled a special searchable collection of records that can be used to fill in the gaps left behind by the loss of the 1890 census. It includes state census collections, city directories, voter registrations and more.

How to find the records:

Find More 1890 Census Substitute Records at Ancestry

This substitute collection is a tremendous help, but don’t stop there. You can also manually hunt for substitute records to see if there might be something helpful that is overlooked in the 1890 census substitute search. This works particularly well if you have a specific research question in mind.

You might be wondering, why would I need to search manually? Many people rely on Ancestry hints to alert them to applicable records, and they figure the search engine will find the rest.

This is a mistake for two reasons.

  1. only approximately 10% of Ancestry® Records Appear as hints.
  2. Not all records at Ancestry are indexed and therefore searchable. There are thousands of browse-only digitized records. Read my article How to Find and Browse Unindexed Records at Ancestry – The Better Browsing Checklist.
  3. There may be a record that meets your needs that was not captured in the 1890 Census Substitute Collection. Try going directly to the Card Catalog and filtering to USA and then by decade such as 1890s.

FamilySearch 1890 Census Substitutes

While FamilySearch doesn’t have one massive substitute database, you can find several focused 1890 census substitute collections available online, at Family History Centers around the country and world, and in book form at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City.

How to find the records:
1. Go to FamilySearch
2. Log into your free account
3. In the menu go to Search > Catalog
4. Click Titles
5. Search for 1890 census substitute
6. If desired, filter down to records available or at a Family History Center near you.

City Directories as an 1890 Census Substitute

Some of the best and most comprehensive substitute records are city directories. If published in your ancestor’s area when they lived there, they can offer a year-by-year record. And that can do wonders for filling in the gap between the 1880 and 1800 census.

How to find the records:

You can find city directories at the big genealogy websites like Ancestry, MyHeritage and FamilySearch, as well as state archives, historical societies and libraries. Google searches also come in very handy in unearthing lesser known websites and repositories. Two of my favorite places to look that are both free and online are Google Books and Internet Archive.

  • Google Books
    Search for the state and county. On the results page click the Tools The first option in the drop-down menu will be Any View. Change it to Full View. The third option is Any Time. Click the down arrow and select Custom Range and set it to 1880 through 1890.

    10 surprising things to find at Google Books

    Episode 30: Lisa’s 10 surprising things to find at Google Books

  • Internet Archive
How to Use the Internet Archive

Watch episode 43 on the Internet Archive.

Like Google Books, the Internet Archive has a vast array of materials digitized and available for free. Watch Elevenses with Lisa episode 43 for ideas and search strategies.

Finding More 1890 Census Substitutes Online

We’ve touched on some of the most popular and helpful records that can be used to fill in the gap left by the loss of the 1890 U.S. Federal Census. As you expand your search look for:

  • County histories
  • Land records
  • Maps (plat and insurance maps)
  • Newspapers
  • Probate records
  • Tax records
  • Voter registers

Resources

Watch Next

Learn more about 1950 U.S. Federal Census Records. Watch episode 51 and episode 53.

 

Did you enjoy this episode? Have a question for Lisa?

You’re part of the family, so please leave a comment below!

Episode 205

The Genealogy Gems Podcast
Episode #205
with Lisa Louise Cooke

Genealogy Gems Podcast 205

This episode breaks two huge pieces of genealogy news and shares two great conversations:

FamilySearch ends microfilm lending:  how you can get the records you need;

RootsMagic adds Ancestry.com compatibility: sync your Ancestry.com tree to your master RootsMagic file and search Ancestry.com from within the software;

Melissa Barker, the Archive Lady, talks about visiting archives to explore original manuscript record treasures;

Nicole Dyer shares a fun family history activity idea to do with kids?do you have a family gathering coming up that could use this inspiration?

A SURPRISE IN MY MAILBOX!

NEWS

Navigating the end of FamilySearch Microfilm Lending

RootsMagic Adds Ancestry.com Sync and Search

NEW PREMIUM VIDEO!

Lisa Louise Cooke shows you how to use the free Google Earth Pro software to create your own historic map collection customized for your genealogy and family history research. By the end of this class you’ll have a permanent collection of hundreds of gorgeous historic and vintage maps from around the world, organized and ready to use for family history.

Click here to watch a free preview of this full-length video class. Genealogy Gems Premium website members can watch the whole thing: click here to learn more.

The 4th Annual Northwest Genealogy Conference

This episode today is brought to you by the 4rd Annual Northwest Genealogy Conference, hosted by the Stillaguamish Valley Genealogical Society, north of Seattle in Arlington, WA. Centering on the theme, “Where Does Your Story Begin?” it’s four days PACKED full of genealogy.

There will be well-known and respected keynote speakers, including our friend and genetic genealogist Diahan Southard, speaking on DNA; Kenyatta Berry of Genealogy Roadshow fame, speaking on Caribbean research and using slave schedules in research; and Daniel Earl speaking on Putting History in Your Family History.

Starting off with the Free Day Wednesday afternoon, Speaker Peggy Lauritzen will address beginner’s issues in her Genealogy 101 presentation, which is also a good refresher for the more seasoned genealogists.  There will be such great genealogical information for all levels, AND it’ll be lot of fun!

Between classes take a chance to meet a distant cousin with the “Cousin Wall”. Participate in the genealogy-related scavenger hunt, the Wednesday evening meet and greet and the Friday dress-as-your-ancestor day, and much, much more!

Go to www.NwGC.org for details and to register. Check it out now — registrations are limited, so it’s good to get in early. It’s August 16-19, 2017. It’ll be a great show: don’t miss it!

INTERVIEW: MELISSA BARKER, THE ARCHIVE LADY

Melissa Barker is a Certified Archives Records Manager, the Houston http://www.honeytraveler.com/buy-antibiotics/ County, Tennessee Archivist and author of the popular blog A Genealogist in the Archives and bi-weekly advice column The Archive Lady. She has been researching her own family history for the past 27 years.

Preserve your own family archive

Items in danger include original items in attics, basements, etc.

What to preserve first? The most precious and original items you have!

Restoration tips:

  • Clean documents and photos with archival sponges. Lay the item perfectly flat. Gently place a finger or hand to hold it steady. Work with the sponge from the center outward, in small sections.
  • Keep two-dimensional items as flat as possible.
  • Encase fragile items in Mylar sleeves (buy from archival supply companies).

Image courtesy of Melissa Barker and Houston County, TN Archives.

Visiting an archive:

  • Call ahead! Don’t trust the operational hours from the website. Ask about parking ? it’s often very limited. Ask ahead about access to archival items of interest.
  • Archive etiquette: Follow the rules. Be courteous when working with staff.
  • Museums, societies, archives, and libraries may all have collections in back rooms you can’t see?but you can ask for them.
  • Vertical Files – in folders in cabinets
  • Manuscript Collections – underused in genealogy! Ask for finding aid.
  • Loose Records – the working papers of a court case, for example
  • Unprocessed Records – not yet incorporated into the official collection

Tips for using your mobile devices in archives:

  • Ask for procedures for taking photos with your own device. There may be rules against this or a use fee.
  • Capture the source information by photographs: cover page, page number, folder, box number, manuscript collection name, etc.

BONUS CONTENT for Genealogy Gems App Users

Get the app here

If you’re listening through the Genealogy Gems app, your bonus audio content for this episode comes from Melissa Barker, the Archive Lady,  with more about finding and using original manuscript records in your genealogy research. The Genealogy Gems app is FREE in Google Play and is only $2.99 for Windows, iPhone and iPad users.

Lisa Louise Cooke uses and recommends RootsMagic family history software. From within RootsMagic, you can search historical records on FamilySearch.org, Findmypast.com and MyHeritage.com. RootsMagic is now fully integrated with Ancestry.com, too: you can sync your RootsMagic trees with your Ancestry.com trees and search records on the site.

Keep your family history research, photos, tree software files, videos and all other computer files safely backed up with Backblaze, the official cloud-based computer backup system for Lisa Louise Cooke’s Genealogy Gems. Learn more at http://www.backblaze.com/lisa.

 

INTERVIEW: NICOLE DYER

Nicole has been researching her ancestors and delighting in their stories for the past 15 years. Nicole volunteers at the Tucson Family History Center teaching a family history story time group for young children.

Read Nicole’s blog post here

Lisa suggested the free program Jing for video screen capturing: https://www.techsmith.com/jing.html

(Full disclosure: this podcast blog contains affiliate links. We will be compensated if you make a purchase through our link. Isn’t that an awesome way to help keep the free podcast free?!)

Visit Animoto here and start a free trial

Start creating fabulous, irresistible videos about your family history with Animoto.com. You don’t need special video-editing skills: just drag and drop your photos and videos, pick a layout and music, add a little text and voila! You’ve got an awesome video! Try this out for yourself at Animoto.com.

 

GENEALOGY GEMS BOOK CLUB: A FAMILY HISTORY MURDER MYSTERY!

Get the book here.

Journalist Helene Stapinski’s new family history memoir:

Murder in Matera: A True Story of Passion, Family, and Forgiveness in Southern Italy

A story of poverty and power, love, tragic decisions, and a courageous and desperate woman’s leap for a new life across the ocean

Murder in Matera continues to unravel a past Helene explored in her fantastic first family history memoir, Five-Finger Discount: A Crooked Family History.

Find a whole list of fabulous family history-inspired reading at the Genealogy Gems Book Club!

Genealogy Gems Newsletter Sign Up

PRODUCTION CREDITS

Lisa Louise Cooke, Host and Producer

Sunny Morton, Editor

Vienna Thomas, Associate Producer

Lacey Cooke, Service “Happiness” Manager

Jewish Genealogy Research

Each area of genealogy research comes with a unique set of challenges. Jewish genealogy is no exception, but thankfully there are fantastic websites and online resources available to help. Even if you don’t have Jewish ancestors, these resources may prove very helpful for researching Eastern European branches of your family tree. Many provide detailed maps and information about towns that have long since vanished. 
 
In this week’s Elevenses with Lisa episode professional genealogist Ellen Shindelman Kowitt (Director of JewishGen’s USA Research Division and National Vice Chair of a DAR Specialty Research Jewish Task Force) joins us to share:
  • unique features that JewishGen.org has to offer
  • the best regional websites
  • what you need to do before you dig into these websites


You can watch here, or click “Watch on YouTube” to watch at the Genealogy Gems YouTube channel where you can also view the live chat by signing into YouTube with a free Google account. 

Episode 57 Show Notes

Interview Transcript

Lisa Louise Cooke: When I think of Jewish genealogy, immediately my mind goes to JewishGen.org, and I was hoping you could start us off with an overview of that. I know that you’re involved with them and boy, do they have a lot to offer!

Ellen Kowitt: JewishGen is really the premier main source for Jewish records on the internet today.

It’s run as a non-profit and it’s actually a part of a museum on the lower side of Manhattan called the Museum of Jewish Living Heritage. It’s run by a professional executive director, Abraham Grohl, but then there are thousands of volunteers that participate as research division directors, who help to identify records, index records, and translate records because language is a big issue in Jewish genealogy.

They’ve developed some really great data sets that can be searched for free by anyone. There is no charge to search JewishGen. Similar to FamilySearch, they ask that you register for a username and a password, but they don’t sell your name and it’s not going to go anywhere past accessing that website.

JewishGen

They have different tools they have developed that are unique to searching Jewish records.

I think there are a lot of entry points into JewishGen. For a novice, particularly beginners who have not done a lot of research anywhere on the internet, it can be a little overwhelming. They have a unified search, which combines the data sets from hundreds of records into one search function, because you can search each of these data sets separately. But if you’re just browsing and curious, and just want to throw your names in, the unified search is a great place to start.

Something that is really exciting about it is that they’ve had these special algorithms developed that are unique to Jewish names and Jewish languages. I’ll mention the Jewish languages in a minute, but it’s similar to the National Archives in the United States, which developed what we call the Soundex, which is an alpha-numeric code assigned to your name. It helps you navigate other spellings to your name that are similar, but maybe your family didn’t spell it that way, but it could be found in a record that way. The American Soundex doesn’t always work on Jewish or mostly Eastern-European names, so these special Soundexes were developed on JewishGen that are now used throughout the Jewish genealogy world on other databases as well. One is called the Daitch–Mokotoff. Another is called the Beider-Morse, but JewishGen doesn’t call them that. When you go in, it’s blind to you.

You’ll put your name or your town name into the search engine and there is a form with fields that you can populate. It doesn’t matter if you’re spelling the names of your given name, your surname, or your town name correctly, because you’re going to be able to pick a couple of different ways to search in a drop-down menu.

The first one will be called “Sounds Like,” the second is “Phonetically Like,” and then it goes into “Starts With,” “Is Exactly,” “Fuzzy Match,” “Fuzzier Match,” and “Fuzziest Match.” My recommendation is always search on “Sounds Like” and “Phonetically Like” because those are Daitch–Mokotoff and Beider-Morse Jewish algorithms for Jewish names and places. So that’s really, really helpful.

Many times people coming to Jewish genealogy are just hung up on names, where they come from, and figuring out an immigrant’s place of origin. Because, think about it: nobody spoke English in the Russian Empire or the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which is where a majority of Jews came from after 1880. So, they’re speaking languages like German and Russian, Lithuanian and Polish, and even Yiddish, which is linguistically more like German although it is written with Hebrew letters.

These immigrants come to American ports and there could be an immigrant from another part of the world with a different kind of accent, like an Irishman. So, an Irishman in America listening to a Yiddish speaker from Russia – of course they’re going to butcher spelling the names. It’s just par for the course.

People can’t get hung up on the spellings of Jewish names, particularly the surnames and the towns of origin where they are emigrating from. Of course, those towns are important to narrow down and understand where they were, because that’s where you’re going to look for the records.

JewishGen’s Communities Database

That’s a second point about JewishGen that’s so helpful. They have a Communities Database, and that lists over 6,000 places where Jews mostly lived in the largest populations around Eastern Europe. In many of those places, Jews don’t live there anymore, but they will outline for you in different time periods where the records are or where they were.

We always refer to Jews coming from Russia because we see that on passenger manifests or census records. But a lot of times when you see Russia as a place of origin for a Jewish family, if they came before 1917, that was Russian Empire. The Russian Empire doesn’t exist anymore, and what was the Russian Empire pre-1975 is not Russia-proper today.

There are a lot of countries where your family could have come from, including Poland, because part of Poland was in the Russian Empire. Your family might actually be from Lithuania, Latvia, Belarus, or Ukraine, or even some places in the south that don’t exist anymore. There used to be an area referred to as Bessarabia, and another one, Bukovina. These don’t exist anymore. Even Prussia, when you talk about the German Jews who came over, and this is true for non-Jews, too. There is no Prussian Empire anymore, and what was the Prussian Empire is now largely Poland, parts of Russia, and Germany of course. But it’s misleading that if your family spoke German and said that were Prussian, that they were German the way we think of Germany today. A lot of Jews came from Prussia, so that’s why I mention it.

Those are the key things about JewishGen. It helps with you the name complications and determining what other spellings there might be in records. It also helps you with locating these towns and what the administrative districts today would be.

How to Get Started in Jewish Genealogy Research

If you’re researching a Jewish family, it’s no different than any other American family, if you’re starting in America. You start with the civil records, the vital records, the census records, and the passenger manifests. None of these American records are divided by faith or ethnic group. So, a Jewish person, or if you’re researching a Jewish branch, should be starting the same way as any other American research. Start with yourself, work backwards, go through and exhaust all of the American records that you can, which will help you determine what those original names and place they came from are. That’s where JewishGen really helps you. It’s kind of like a 102 class. You have to do the American 101 records, and then when you’ve exhausted all of that, you jump to the Jewish records, which are largely available through JewishGen.

JewishGen Networking

And the big point about JewishGen is the networking, because there’s this huge discussion group. They are now on Facebook with a group.

They have something called the JewishGen Family Finder, where you can register the names you’re looking for and/or the towns. Likewise, you can search to see whom else is researching the same names and towns that you are.

Through the messaging on JewishGen, you can get in touch with them and say, “Hey this is my story. Can I see your tree?” or “Do you have any family photos?” or “Have you had any success finding records for the little town in the middle of Ukraine?” Or even, “Have you hired a researcher that was helpful in pushing your research back in this particular archive in Lithuania?” It’s a fantastic way to find people researching the same obscure, small areas of the world that you are.

Lisa Louise Cooke – That’s an amazing resource, and you’re so right that we still have to follow the basic genealogy methodology. We still need to go through those records here. It’s tempting – I know people will say, “Well I know they were Jewish” so they’ll want to jump into that, and yet you miss so many clues that would probably come in super handy once you get over to JewishGen and you’re ready for that.

Ellen Kowitt: Absolutely…I find people who come to Jewish genealogy as beginners have not done that. I’m often backtracking and teaching American research before I ever get to a single Jewish record. I think that it’s really important that people take a look at (American records).

If they’re not in the United States and they’re listening, Canadian records or British records, wherever you might be starting from. You need to start in the country where your person that you’re researching is located, with those records first.

JewishGen Research Divisions

Lisa Louise Cooke: That’s a great point. I know for my own Sporowskis who were German-East Prussians, really they’re out of Belarus. I’m pretty sure that even though my great-grandfather later was going to the Lutheran church in America, I think they were a Jewish family back in Belarus. JewishGen has been one of the few places to find information about some of these locations that have changed names and boundaries. It’s just an amazing resource in that way.

Ellen Kowitt: Belarus is a good example. JewishGen has maybe over 20 research divisions. I happen to be the director for what’s called the USA Research Division, and just to define that, it’s not census records and passenger manifests. It’s looking at records held at Jewish repositories that are in the US, like the American Jewish Archives or the Southern Jewish Historical Society.

There are research divisions geographically all throughout Eastern Europe and there is one for Belarus called the Belarus Research Division. If you click on their link from JewishGen’s drop-down menu, they have their own website and they give a lot of maps, from now and then, of what Belarus was, and lists of towns divided by province, or what was gubernia. There are ways to connect with people and search what their records are.

Here’s a little tip I have about Research Divisions and any project on JewishGen. If you don’t find what you’re looking for and you really think it might be there, or you’re spelling it wrong and it’s not showing up in the Soundex, contact whoever the person is on that record set or who the Research Division director is, or who the town leader is.

In Ukraine, there are hundreds of town leaders for these little towns and what we find is that the town leaders and the Research Division leaders often know or are holding onto records that are not online. If you’re not finding something, it’s free to send an email! Just inquire and say, “Do you know anything else about Grodno, Belarus in 1854? Or the name Cohen?” or whatever it is, and you just never know what these folks have because I have found there are a lot of offline lists that the experts know about.

Lisa Louise Cooke: That’s very good insider information. It’s true, as you go into your genealogy research you get more and more daring and send that email. All they can do is just not be available. But it sounds like those folks are more than happy to help. What a wonderful idea.

Regional Jewish Genealogy Resources

Lisa Louise Cooke: We were talking about specific regions and I’m sure there are all kinds of different things here, but what other types of websites might be out there for regional Jewish genealogy?

Ellen Kowitt: It’s a little confusing. There is kind of a hierarchy. It’s not coordinated by any organizing body, but there are three independently run Jewish database sites. When I say the names, sometimes people say, “Oh that’s part of JewishGen.” They’re not. They are run independently. The three are:

  • JRI-Poland which stands for Jewish Records Indexing Poland,
  • Gesher Galicia, and I’ll define that for you.
  • And what we used to call LitvakSIG, and SIG stands for Special Interest Group.

All three of these groups kind of have roots in JewishGen and then for different organizing reasons all wanted to organize as independent non-profits. But they share their data. Now, do they share all of their data? Do they share their data at the same time? Are they sharing it in the same place? The answers really vary. This is why, I always say, if you’re brand new, check out Unified Search on JewishGen.

Ancestry actually has some of LitvakSIG, some of JRI-Poland, and some of JewishGen’s records. Just recently LitvakSIG released some of their records to MyHeritage. So, there is some overlap back and forth on the data sets. But if you’re from these three particular geographic regions, I would not only be looking on Ancestry, FamilySearch, and JewishGen. I would always go to their original databases on each of their original websites.

LitvakSIG

LitvakSIG really stands for Lithuania, but Lithuania today is really different than the geographic borders of Lithuania a hundred years ago. When you look at modern-day Lithuania on a map, if your family is coming from a part of Latvia or Belarus or an area of Russia that surrounds that area, you might want to look there. I have this corner of southwestern Lithuania that part of my family came from, but it has also been Prussian, it has been Suwalki, Poland, and it’s right near Belarus, but yet I found records in Lithuania in LitvakSIG. I have also found them in Suwalki from JRI-Poland. So, loosely when you define your location, consider what’s geographically around the modern-day borders. But LitvakSIG is predominantly Lithuania and a lot of Jews came from Vilnius and Kaunus and all these places up there.

JRI-Poland

The second one is JRI-Poland. They are fantastic in their records acquisition. They’ve had partnerships with the Polish state archives. They give locations of microfilm that are for Polish municipalities at the FamilySearch digital collection. They have tons of volunteers who have worked there for 30 years. It’s extremely extensive.

For listeners who don’t know, the Polish State Archives has largely gone online, so a lot of vital records are digitized and you can go right to the record. Now, it may be in Polish or Russian, but you can get to those records for free, just like you can on FamilySearch sometimes.

JRI-Poland is just a powerhouse for getting access, using their indexes first to locate if there are records for your family in a town, using the Soundexes that are the Jewish Soundexes, and then getting to the original record. I just love JRI-Poland.

And be loose on those borders because it’s going to include Suwalki and those areas north on the Lithuanian-Russian border. Even the Belarus border and that Prussian border on the other side. For JRI-Poland, ‘cast a broad net’ is areas that were ever considered Poland, even on the southern side, too.

Gesher Galicia

The third one is called Gesher Galicia, also run independently, and also shares data with JewishGen. Galicia does not exist anymore. It was a designation for an area that today you would think of on a map as western Ukraine and eastern Poland, and a lot of Jews lived in Galicia. Unique to that area is that it was Austro-Hungarian Empire at one point, so the records are in German, not so much in Russian or in Polish.

But Gesher Galicia has got a fantastic search engine on their database, and they are another powerhouse that is just continuing with their volunteer army of adding so many great data sets.

They’re really good, too, at allowing you to list what towns you’re researching if you join, and I think they have a small membership fee. In fact, each of them have a membership fee that they’ve added on, and I think that just gives you access to records maybe a little bit sooner.

These three are often lumped in with JewishGen but are really organized as separate organizations and they acquire records and index them in a different way.

Lisa Louise Cooke: That’s a great overview and it reminds us, like with all genealogy, that when you see partners working together and they end up with records on multiple sites, I find myself wanting to look at those records, even if they’re the same, on every site. You never know what the nuances are. You never know if their image is clear. There are so many different possible variations.

Jewish Records at Ancestry.com

Ellen Kowitt: There are! I have taken a deep dive on Ancestry’s records of JewishGen. They started an arrangement awhile back, I think in 2008, and JewishGen gave them a bunch of records in return for Ancestry housing their servers. So a great business arrangement for a little non-profit like JewishGen, but confusing for people like researchers that only use Ancestry and never look any further. 

Certainly if you’re finding things on Ancestry (Jewish Records at Ancestry) that are JewishGen, you want to go to JewishGen and search also because JewishGen has not updated all the records that they sent to Ancestry ten or more years ago. There are unique records that were never sent to Ancestry, and you pick up those Jewish Soundex search capacities on JewishGen.

Now, Ancestry’s search has definitely advanced in recent years but it’s not the Beider-Morse the Daitch–Mokotoff Jewish algorithms for searching Jewish names. If you can’t find somebody on the JewishGen collection at Ancestry, go to JewishGen and try running the search there.

Holocaust Research

Lisa Louise Cooke: Another area I can think of as a roadblock area for folks in their research is around the Holocaust. What kinds of resources do we have to conduct research when it comes to the Holocaust?

Ellen Kowitt: I started doing this about 25 years ago and it used to be that either the records were not released by some of the archives in Russia or in the East, or they weren’t in English, or they weren’t indexed. You would put in these requests and it would take literally years for certain repositories to answer a basic inquiry with “Yes” or “No” if they have a card on your family.

I think there was a lot of mythology build around ‘you can’t document the Holocaust and what happened to people’ and what we’re finding all these years is later is that there are so many records. Plenty of people are documenting their families. We are continuing to find more resources available online, even from repositories that are traditionally not in English.

It’s hard to say where to start, because the story of the Holocaust has also evolved. It used to be we learned in school, if we even learned at all about the story of the Holocaust, that it was the story of the concentration camps and the Jews being gassed, and that’s certainly true. But there are so many other elements of the Holocaust like the story of the 1 ½ million Jews killed in Ukraine before anyone ever was killed at Auschwitz. We call this “the Holocaust by bullets” (and the story and most of what was the Soviet Union at that time), was the Jews were rounded up and, this is gruesome, but they were executed and left in mass graves that are unmarked, largely, throughout what was the Soviet Union.

Even Jews who knew their family was tied up in those kinds of stories thought there was no way to figure out what happened to their family or the town. But we do have records. The Russians kept records. It turns out the Germans kept records. A lot of this has become available online that you can search in English.

It really depends, for a family that knows they have a Holocaust story, where they were, what country they originated in, if you know the story that they went to a camp, or if they were in a small town where there was a mass grave. You’re going to be looking at very different resources.

I would say, if you only had to look at one and you wanted to just start this process, Yad Vashem’s website in Israel, in English, would be the place to do a general top-level search. The reason is because Yad Vashem is like the US version of the (United States) Holocaust (Memorial) Museum in DC, and they have resources too, but the one in Israel is called Yad Vashem and it has a larger collection.

They have also collected these pages of testimony from survivors who talk about their family members and where they last saw them, or if they know the exact story about what happened to them or their whereabouts throughout the war. Thousands of these pages have been submitted and they’re searchable. You can see the original pages that people submit and you can even get in contact with the people submitting them. It’s a great networking opportunity for people looking to connect. Yad Vashem has these great success stories, less and less because the survivors are aging out, where they connected people who still had living relatives in Argentina, Australia, or in Europe, and they’re just fantastic renewal stories.

But yes, complicated topic. It is possible to learn what happened to a community, hopefully to an individual. Records are at Bad Arolsen, the Arolsen archives in Germany, in addition to Yad Vashem and the US Holocaust Museum.

JewishGen does have a Holocaust collection worth searching, although it’s smaller than these other larger repositories. There are all kinds of things on the internet – webinars, speakers, and even books that have been published on how to track down victims and survivors of the Holocaust.

And non-Jewish, too. I recently was looking into someone who came from a Ukrainian Orthodox family and they were shipped out of Ukraine to what would be now the Czech Republic, and they were in a work camp. Sometimes these repositories you think of as Jewish record repositories for Jews in the Holocaust also tell the story of the non-Jewish victims of the Holocaust.

Lisa Louise Cooke: I so appreciate your vast knowledge on this. I know you teach people about genealogy, Jewish genealogy – tell us a little bit about you got started in genealogy and then into it professionally.

Ellen Kowitt: I guess like everybody out there, I just have that gene. Even from a young age, I was the one who just gobbled up the stories at the holiday tables and remembered the names and connected the relationships and just kept track of it in my head, long before I realized that was not normal, it was unusual and not everyone does that.

There is a woman, Sallyann Sack, who writes a lot of books on Jewish genealogy and she’s one of the publishers of Avotanyu, which is both a journal on Jewish genealogy and also a publishing company on books about Jewish genealogy. In my twenties, I happened to go to a lecture she gave at a synagogue in Washington DC, 25 or more years ago. She said “Hey we have this club! It’s a Jewish genealogy society and we’re doing a beginners workshop. Do you want to come?” I went and there was no looking back. I just got the bug. I started interviewing relatives like we all are taught, to talk to the oldest people first and the records can wait.

It just went from there. I got super involved as a volunteer. I actually think volunteering is a great way when you’re a beginner to learn about record sets. I have seen probate records, naturalizations, and Jewish records that I would never have found in my own family by helping index through a project with a local society. That was fascinating to me.

Then one day a friend insisted on paying me money to do some research on his mother, and I actually liked it. I thought, wow, if I can make a few extra dollars to pay for my genealogy obsession – and these websites can be expensive, the conferences cost money – but if I can make money and help to pay for my obsession, then I’m going to be a professional. So, that’s how I fell into that and it’s grown from there.

Lisa Louise Cooke: I think those of us who caught the bug when we were young are really fortunate because we got opportunities and I think had a focus on talking to and recording some of those stories. I know that’s probably people’s biggest regret, when they didn’t think about it back when they had an opportunity to interview some of the older relatives. I know in my case I just treasure the few interviews that I did do and I still have.

Ellen Kowitt: Me too.

Lisa Louise Cooke: I really appreciate you sharing all these wonderful resources. And of course, folks can visit you at your website at EllenKowitt.com, and I know that you do lecturing and all kinds of professional work on genealogy, and the wonderful article, Find Your Jewish Roots Online, in the May/June 2021 issue of Family Tree Magazine. Ellen, it’s been a delight to talk to you. Thank you so much for joining us here on the show.

Ellen Kowitt: Thank you so much for having me, I enjoyed it!

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