Google searches for genealogy are a main focus of our Google Guru, Lisa Louise Cooke. Read this inspiring story of how one Genealogy Gems reader used Lisa’s Google search tips to find a trove of family stories worthy of an opera.
Opera house image courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration via Wikimedia Commons.
You never know when the amazing technology of the internet and Google will lead to a discovery that will open the doors on your family history. I recently received a letter from Genealogy Gems listener, Kristen. She shared the sad tale of her maternal grandmother’s history. Her grandmother had lost her mother before the age of two. Then, as an only child, her father abandoned her to be raised by a less-than-loving step mother. This young woman grew-up and had children of her own, but all she had in the way of a family history was the memory of her father’s name and a handful of unnamed photographs.
Merton E. Markert
Kristen went on to say, “She never really spoke of her sad childhood, save to say that the stepmother would tell her she had always been unwanted and that her mother was unloved and the marriage was forced.”
Among the handful of mystery photographs of her grandmother as a child, was a brief article from a newspaper. It was a lesson in manners titled Silence is Golden and it was written by Merton Markert, a student of the Modern Classics. A photo of a young woman was attached.
Using Clues for Google Searches for Genealogy
Here’s the rest of Kristen’s letter:
I took your advice and Googled Merton Markert Modern Classical Silence Golden. Up came the Lancaster High School Yearbook for 1905, featuring p. 41, the senior class portraits with their course study descriptions and a small personal quote for each. There was that exact photo of her, and the name Merton Markert, Modern Classical with the quote, “Life seems a jest of Fate’s contriving.”
Photo courtesy of Kristin Wat
The whole yearbook had been digitized by Mocavo, and it is the only yearbook for that high school in several years. My great-grandmother [Merton Markert], who had been buried and unspoken for a hundred years, had reached out to me. She wanted me to find her! Lisa, I cannot adequately describe the feelings I experienced at that moment of discovery. You understand how a moment like that feels, I’m sure. The chills, the tears…I felt like I was staring into her eyes, reaching through a century of silence, and finally able to acknowledge her sacrifice and legacy.
On the football team that year was my great-grandfather, and the whole book was ripe with clues that still hold nuanced significance.
From there, I was able to grow a tree on Ancestry.com and get the basics. But that does not tell you who the person is, the struggles, the character, the story. So taking your lead, and thinking like my brother the Sherriff Detective, I got creative. Using all kinds of searches and sniffing and turning over and under, I was able to uncover a veritable opera’s worth of stories within this one branch [of my family tree]. The cast of characters include: A Colonial founder, a secret bastard half-sister, a suicidal mother, a Klondike Gold Stampeder, alcoholics, a rejected Baptist Pastor, a homosexual affair-turned-murder victim, a bonafide Monuments Man (buried at Arlington), and a chorus of war veterans. And cancer. Lots of it. In fact, breast cancer was the reason for Merton’s death in 1910. That kind of information is vital to my sisters and female cousins.
So thank you, my clever inspiration.
Ain’t opera grand?
Lisa’s Response to Kristen with Additional Ideas
Thanks for sharing your fascinating story. I completely understand the emotions you felt the moment she was looking back at you on the screen. Those moments are precious and meant to be savored!Using search techniques from my book The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox, Second Edition,I also discovered this same yearbook on the robust and free Internet Archive website. Perhaps there is more there to be found. And I have an additional idea I thought you might like to try. It’s Ebay.
Genealogy Gems Premium Members can listen to Premium episode 16 which goes in depth into my Tips for Finding Family History Related Items on eBay.
More on Google Searches for Genealogy
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Social Security Death Index (SSDI) search is not necessarily as straight forward as you might think. We’re going to explore what SSDI records are, their range of availability, and how they compare across the Genealogy Giants records websites.
If you’ve been dabbling in genealogy research for a while, then you are very likely familiar with the Social Security Death Index, more commonly referred to as the SSDI. But even experienced researchers have questions, like the one that Marti sent me recently:
From Marti in Texas:
Thank you so much for all your helpful resources on your website!! I just listened to the SSDI Working Backwards podcast episode (Family History: Genealogy Made Easy episode 3) and my grandparents passed away in 2012 and 2014. Do you know when the last time the index has been updated, I cannot locate them.
Thank you so much!!
This two-fold question is a good one. While many genealogical record sets have privacy laws that dramatically restrict more recent records from being available, the SSDI is not one of them. But even if the records are available, there may still be times when we have trouble locating our relatives.
Whenever you run into a road block finding ancestors in a record collection, do what good detectives do, and go back to the beginning. In this case, let’s learn more about the collection itself.
Social Security Death Index Background
The Social Security Act was signed into law in 1935 by President Franklin Roosevelt. By 1937, more than 30 million Americans had registered. Today, the Death Master File from the Social Security Administration contains around 90 million records of deaths and they are publicly available online.
Some data goes as far back as 1937, but most of the information included in the SSDI dates from 1962. This is because the Social Security Administration began to use a computer database for processing requests for benefits in 1962. Some of the earlier records back to 1937 have not been added.
It’s important to know that the SSDI does not have a death record for everyone. It’s also very possible that you may occasionally find an error here and there if something was reported incorrectly. But don’t let that stop you from tapping into this major resource! It’s a wonderful alternative source for finding people who were counted in the 1890 census (which was unfortunately mostly destroyed) because they may still appear in the SSDI. Also, those who were born before vital records registration in their home state began, may also show up. Remember, working folks just had to live past 1937 to have been possibly included. That means some people could have been born sometime in the late 1800s.
Now that we have a handle on the history of the SSDI, let’s look at who has it and how recent their records are.
Where to Find the SSDI
The Social Security Death Index (SSDI) is available on all of the ‘big 4’ genealogy records websites, which we here at Genealogy Gems refer to as the “Genealogy Giants.” The links below will take you directly to the SSDI search page for each.
MyHeritage (It is not stated how current the database is, but a search for 2014 did retrieve results)
(No dates or citation provided, but a search for people who died in 2014 did retrieve results)
In Marti’s case, she will want to search every single one of these websites for her ancestors. The good news is that they all appear to be up-to-date, but that doesn’t mean they are all exactly the same. The same collection of genealogy records can appear differently from site to site for a number of reasons such as accidental omissions, variations in the power of their search engine, differences between indexers and scanners, and Optical Character Recognition (OCR) inaccuracies. These may or may not affect the SSDI, but the point is that you can’t go wrong searching each one of the Genealogy Giants just in case. And since SSDI search can be conducted for free at all of the Genealogy Giants, it doesn’t cost you anything to do so.
A quick way to find all of the websites that include the SSDI is to Google SSDI genealogy. Here’s a link to the results.
SSDI Search Head-to-Head Comparison
Another excellent reason to search the SSDI on multiple websites is that each website displays the information a little differently. And as you can see from the chart below, when it comes to the Genealogy Giants, there are definitely differences.
It’s interesting to note that Ancestry is the only website that provides information about the year that the Social Security number was issued. It isn’t exact, but it’s more than the others offered in my search for Alfred H. Sporan.
The differences between the 4 major websites can be sometimes subtle or quite dramatic. Understanding their strengths and weaknesses, as well as free versus subscription offerings, is key to successful research that is both efficient and cost-effective.
The quick reference guide Genealogy Giants: Comparing the 4 Major Websites is a must-have for anyone serious about getting the most out of free and paid subscriptions.
The author of this 4-page full-color cheat sheet, Sunny Morton, is Contributing Editor here at Genealogy Gems, and she’s packed this guide with everything you would ever want to know, and many things you probably didn’t know that you needed to know. You can pick up your copy here in our store.
SSDI Search and Beyond
There is another database at Ancestry that is worth keeping your eye on. It’s called the U.S. Social Security Applications and Claims Index and it shouldn’t be missed! Currently, this covers 1936-2007, but who knows, they may update it in the future. It includes even more information. It was first released in 2015. Read more about it here at Genealogy Gems.
Gems: Share Your SSDI Search Experience!
I invite you to take a moment to share your SSDI search experience in the comments below. Have you had any surprises? Did you find a difference between the records found at different websites? We want to hear your story because we all benefit from each other’s experiences.
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