New Videos Can Help You Find African-American Family History in Freedmen’s Bureau Records

FamilySearch has posted a series of new videos aimed at helping people trace their African-American family history with Freedmen’s Bureau records.

Marriage records created by the Freedmens' Bureau. Wikimedia Commons image; click to view.

FamilySearch’s YouTube channel has published several new videos to help researchers better understand how to trace African-American ancestors with the Freedmen’s Bureau records. As we explain more fully in this article, the Freedmen’s Bureau was organized after the Civil War to aid newly-freed slaves in 15 states and Washington, DC. For several years it gathered “handwritten, personal information on freed men, women and children, including marriage and family information, military service, banking, school, hospital and property records,” according to FamilySearch.

Freedmen’s Bureau records are finally being fully indexed and posted online for free at FamilySearch and at DiscoverFreedmen.org. (Read the article we refer to above to see how you can help.) Now it’s time to teach everyone how to USE these records and to begin to share success stories. That’s the purpose behind these videos:

Telling a Story with the Freedmen’s Bureau with the Reverend Dr. Cecil L. Murray:

Research the Records of African-American Ancestors with the Freedmen’s Bureau with Kimberly Freeman:


Uncover Information about your African American Heritage wih the Freedmen’s Bureau with Judy Matthews:

Discover Stories from Your Ancestry with Insights from the Freedmen’s Bureau Project with John Huffman:

Use Freedmen’s Bureau Records to Demystify Your Family History with George O. Davis

Enrich Your Family History with Information from the Freedmen’s Bureau with Ambassador Diane Watson

Additional Resources

Free Database on Civil War Soldiers and Sailors  (African-American sailors)

Missing Birth Record? Here’s How to Track It Down (Special tip for African-American births)

DNA Helps Scientists Identify Homeland of Caribbean Slaves

New! Map for Freedmen’s Bureau Resources

Who do you know that will want to learn more about the Freedmen’s Bureau and African-American family history resources? Thank you for sharing this article with them.

How to Find Old Rural Addresses on a Map

Have you ever found an address for an ancestor but been disappointed that it is just a Route number and a town name? Have you wondered if it is possible to figure out where they actually lived? The good news is, it is! I’m going to show you how to take a rural “route” address from the early 20th century and find it on an old census enumeration district map. 

find old rural addresses on a map

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Show Notes

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In a recent video I showed you how to find 1950 Census Enumeration District (ED) maps. These are super helpful and also free. In that video we used the address of an ancestor that we found by hunting through old letters and documents. But for many Americans in the early 20th century that address may have just been a route number and town.

That was the case for my viewer Lisa. She emailed me after she watched the video. She writes, “How can you find the E.D. number when you only have a Route number? My relatives lived in rural Arkansas.”

This is totally doable! Follow allow these steps of this case study and they will help you find the E.D. number and census enumeration district maps, and zero in on the location.

“Route 2” & Rural Delivery

A carrier route is basically the territory one letter carrier can cover on a daily basis. So, there could be a Route 1 or a Route 2 in thousands of places around the country. It just happens that your ancestor was on, say, Route 2 in a particular township area. Although it doesn’t tell us which house, it does dramatically narrow down the place because a daily route was the same and may not have been that large. Once we find that area we can then use other sources to help us try to get even more specific.

If you’re interested in some interesting history on early rural delivery routes read Riding a Rural Free Delivery Route, 1903.

Here’s a handy PDF download from the post office: Post Office: First Rural Routes by State.

Step 1: Gather the Details

The first thing we need to do is gather some details. We need:

  • The ancestors’ names
  • The Route number address which includes the town
  • The county – which is something we can easily find online with a quick search
  • The year – in this case the address she has is from 1950.

 So, here’s what Lisa sent me about her ancestors, the Blazers:

Names: Joseph Madison Blazer and Minnie Blazer
Route number: Route 2
Address: Frazier Pike
County: Pulaski

Joe and Minnie Blazer c1950

Joe and Minnie Blazer c1950 (Image courtesy of Lisa Egner.)

Step 2: Find the Family in the Census

Now we need to find the family in the census record closest to the date of the known address.

Since the 1950 census hasn’t been released yet because I’m recording this in Jan. of 2022, we can’t yet pull up their record. So, we’ll need to turn to the 1940 census. There’s a good chance that the family was in the same location since folks didn’t typically move around quite as much or as far as we do these days.

The 1940 census is available for free at many of the larger genealogy websites like FamilySearch and Ancestry.

Here’s the Blazer family in the 1940 census, and Lisa confirmed that she believes this is the same place.

census record

On the census record we are looking for three very important things:

  • the township (Badgett Township)
  • the ED number (60-2B)
  • and any address written along the left margin. If you don’t see anything, check the pages before and after that page. (Frazier Pike)

Step 3: Search for the Township

Once you have the location or township, search for them in an online map. I prefer to use Google Earth, but I often also use Google Maps. It doesn’t hurt to check both.

In this case we have two locations to look for: Badgett Township and Frazier Pike. We’ll start with the actual address which was Frazier Pike, Arkansas. Google Earth tell us that it’s a road just southeast of Little Rock, AR. When you click the pin it also tells you the current zip code for the Frazier Pike area, so we’ll make note of that. I’m like to create a project folder (Blazer Address) in my Places panel and then save the location pin in it. I will add additional items to the folder as I find them.

finding zip code in google earth

Click the pin to see the zip code.

Next, I’ll search for the other location found in the 1940 census, Badgett Township. It doesn’t appear in either Google Earth or Google Maps. That’s probably because it’s been renamed or incorporated. Googling may be able to help so I googled: badgett township arkansas history.

This led me to a website that provided several helpful clues. It says that Badgett is “historical”, meaning that it’s the old name of the town which has since changed. It also provides us with the latitude and longitude of Badgett which we can use in Google Earth to confirm it’s location.

Get a map website

Result: Latitude and Longitude from Get a Map 

Go back to Google Earth and enter the coordinates (34°42’10” N  92°12’0″ W) in the search box and press ENTER on your keyboard. 

google earth

The locations are very close.

And indeed, it’s very close to Frazier Pike.  (image above)

I also like to look at the image results when googling. The website results are organized by the most relevant images. When I ran a search on Badgett, AR, and click Images on the results page, I see that the first one showed a map showing Frazier Pike. So, they are nearly one and the same.

Another search result was the Home Town Locator website. It says “the Township of Badgett (historical) is a cultural feature (civil) in Pulaski County. The primary coordinates for Township of Badgett (historical) places it within the AR 72206 ZIP Code delivery area.” This confirms that it is historical, the coordinates pin the same place on the map, and the current zip code is the same.

I also ran a Google search for Route 2 Frazier Pike AR. The first result was College Station, AR mentioned in Wikipedia.

A quick Find on the page search (Alt + F) for Route 2 jumps me to a nice bit of history.

In the section discussing schoolhouses we get a description of the route: “…located in the main red-dirt road called Route 2 in Pulaski County. Route 2 is now known as Frazier Pike.”

Step 4: Find the ED Map for the Closest Census

Next, we turn our attention to the enumeration district or ED number we found on the 1940 census. As you’ll recall, 1940 is the closest available census record to the date of the address, and we found Lisa’s ancestors in that record in Badgett, AR which we now know is the Frazier Pike area in Pulaski county. On that record it says: Badgett Township. ED 60-2B.

 We could google for the year of the census and the words enumeration district map. However, there’s a great free tool for finding them over at Steve Morse’s One-Step Tools website at stevemorse.org.

In the menu under U.S. Census select the Unified 1880-1950 Census ED Finder, select the year at the top of the page. In this case we will select 1940. Next, enter the state (Arkansas) and county (Pulaski). You can then select the city or town. However, in the case of rural addresses, don’t expect to find the town listed. If it offers you an “Other” option you can try and type the name of the town (Badgett) in the field provided. Don’t bother entering the route number (Route 2) because that’s not a street address, it’s a postal delivery address.

We could also run this same search on the 1950 census. Chances are you will see more ED numbers listed because the population was growing. Since an enumeration district had to be the size that one enumerator could cover in about a two week timeframe, they were often redivided as they decades went by.

Since we know from the 1940 census that township was in existence, we should receive a list of ED numbers as a result. In this case we got three: 60-2A, 60-2B. and 60-3.

steve morse census unified

Click the corresponding ED number.

Click the linked ED number that matches the one you found in the census record. In this case, the 1940 census record told us that the Blazer family was in ED 60-2B, so we click that link.

The next page lists each ED. Click the View link for the ED.

census ED numbers

Click the View link.

The View link will take you to the exact page for that ED in the ED Descriptions from the National Archives T1224 microfilm from Record Group 29. This description helps even further define the area.

1940 census description

1940 Census ED Description

60-2 A and B says, “Badgett Township – That part north of section line beginning at the southwest corner of section 19, Township 1 North, Range 11 and extending due east to township line. Show separately College Station (unincorporated.)”

This is perfect because its’ giving us the township, range and section! We can use this information to plot it in Google Earth.

How to plot a land description in Google Earth with Earthpoint:

  1. Go to earthpoint.us
  2. Under USA Utilities click Search by Description
  3. Enter the state, principal meridian (in this case there’s only one choice here thankfully), township, range and section numbers from the census description.
  4. Click the Fly to on Google Earth button.
  5. This may open automatically in Google Earth or you may be prompted to save the file to your computer. Do that and then click it to open. It is a KMZ file so it will automatically open in Google Earth.

And here are the results! The location is mapped out for you.

land description plotted

Census description mapped in Google Earth.

Notice I still have my placemark pins for the approximate location of Frazier Pike, and the center of Badgett Twp which we got using the latitude and longitude coordinates. Section 19 is outlined in purple, and the township is outlined in orange.

Since Frazier Pike is a road, turn on Roads in the Layers panel.  Now we can see that Frazier Pike is running north and south and our pin is right on top of it.

Now we can use the census description to further zero in on the area. “Badgett Township – That part north of section line beginning at the southwest corner of section 19 Township 1 North, Range 11 and extending due east to township line. Show separately College Station (unincorporated.)”

Mark that in Google Earth using the Path tool.  Click the Path button in the toolbar at the top oof Google Earth. Click on the southwest corner of section 19 (outlined in purple) and then go east and click the township line (in orange.) Give your path a title and click OK.

google earth path tool

Click the Path button in the tool bar.

Next in the census description, on the same line as “B” it says “Show separately College Station (unincorporated.)” We can find College Park by searching for College Station, AR in the Google Earth search box.

Next, we want to follow Frazier Pike going north until we are above the section line that started in the southwest corner of Section 19. Use the Path tool again to mark it on the map.

rural route address mapped

Use the path tool to draw lines in Google Earth.

Get the Enumeration District Map

Now it’s time to head back to Steve Morse’s website and get the ED map for 1940. On the page you started your search, click the See ED Maps for… button.

one step tool ed maps

Click the See ED Maps button.

On the next page select the state, county and city again and click the Get ED Map Images button.

get ed maps at steve morse

Click the Get ED Map Images button.

This will take you to a list of all of the available maps. The first link will take you to the National Archives webpage where you can look through all the maps for the area you selected. You could also look through all the individual maps by clicking each of the links listed under “Direct links to jpegs on NARA server”. However, I don’t recommend that will take longer because they are extremely large image files. It’s easier to quickly look through them on the NARA website.

get census maps at steve morse

Click the Link to NARA viewer.

Click the link to the NARA viewer and look for the township name in the map thumbnail images. In this case I’m looking for Badgett. You can do this quickly by clicking each image and then drag the larger map in the viewer around with your mouse. I found Badgett Township in the second map.

Census ED maps at NARA

Map images at NARA.

Download the full-sized map by selecting the thumbnail image and then clicking the download button (down arrow.) The full resolution map will load in your web browser. Right-click on it and Save Image As to save it to your computer.

how to download census ED map

Right-click on the map to save it to your computer.

It can help to create a map overlay in Google Earth using this map. (Learn how to do this in the newest edition of my book The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox.) I cropped the image to just include Badgett Twp.

In fact, you can overlay both the 1940 and 1950 ED maps. Click to select a map in the Places panel and then you can use the transparency slide to fade it to reveal changes.

opacity slider google earth

Select the map and use the opacity slider in Google Earth.

Step 5: Follow the Census

The census can provide even more clues about where in an enumeration district an address was located. Using the census record and the census description of the enumeration district, it can help to highlight the area of the map. In this case, ED 60-2 is “that part north of section line” which I marked with a red path line. The Blazers address was Frazier Pike (which I marked with a green line), so this eliminated the northern area and the Fourche Dam Pike road.  To make sure that I could eliminate that area, I verified in the 1940 census that Fourche Dam Pike was enumerated separately by running a keyword search of the Pulaski County census records at Ancestry. And yes, indeed folks living along Fourche Dam Pike were enumerated separately and the road was written along the margin just as Frazier Pike was. This gives me a lot of confidence that I’m identifying the right area.

highlight the rural route address on a map

The route highlighted on the census ED map.

As you can see, there are little black squares and other markings on the map. To find out what each of those means we can turn back to the National Archives and download the page from this map collection that includes the map key.

The black squares are “Farm Units”. A farm unit square is not one family , it is the entire farm, including the owner and other families who may live and work on the farm. We also see businesses, churches, the town hall, school houses and more. We may not be able to find the exact home, but it’s possible to get very close. To do that, we need to head back to the census records themselves.

On Ancestry.com , the Blazers appear on Image 27. The filmstrip makes it easy to quickly scan through the images and browse them.

In this case, there are about 33 images or pages in ED 60-2B. The enumerator would start at one end of Frazier Pike and then make her way to the other. The enumerator wrote “College Station Pike” on pages 1 and 2. That isn’t a road today, and I couldn’t find any references to with a quick search. However, all of the other pages say, “Frazier Pike”. My guess would be that the census taker started on the west side – the hub of College Pike – and made her way east. Census enumerators visited homes and farms in a logical path, although they may have criss-crossed back and forth across the road. They listed the order in which they visited on the census form itself. In cities we might also see house numbers listed, but that’s not the case in a rural area. However, you may see pencil dots with visitation numbers written on the ED map. They were instructed to do this in rural areas in the census enumerator instructions in 1940. Unfortunately, the person enumerating 60-2B did not.

We could also look at the types of businesses and buildings shown on the map, and then look through the census records at occupations. We see a “factory/industrial” building to the east so we would look for people working in that environment in the census and see where they are living. We see a denser population in College Station along with a schoolhouse and two churches, so it would be worth looking through the census pages to see where the school teacher and pastors are listed. Folks may not have lived on the premises, but it would make sense they lived near their work.

Wedding photo Joseph Madison Blazer Minnie Mae Peterscolor

Wedding photo Joseph Madison Blazer Minnie Mae Peters (courtesy of Lisa Egner)

And finally, we want to look for renters and owners. If a family rented, a capital “R” was entered on the census. Those who owned their property were listed with a capital “O”. Since the black squares are “Farm Units” we wouldn’t expect to see a square on the map for every house. If our hypothesis is that the enumerator started on the west side, we could count the number of owned dwellings listed in the census until we get to the family living in question. Then we would count them on the map, going east. Again, it’s not exact, but it’s a whole lot more than what we knew about the address Route 2 Frazier Pike when we started!

Resources

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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