Land records are some of the most underutilized, yet most useful, records available in genealogy. Often, they are the only records which state a direct relationship between family members. They can also be used to prove relationships indirectly by studying the land laws in force at the time. Sometimes they can even be used to locate an ancestor’s farm or original house, so that we can walk today where our family walked long ago.
Land records exist in the United States in abundance for most locations. Read on to learn how to find land records and how they can help you scale seemingly impossible brick walls in your genealogy research. Our guest blogger is Jaye Drummond, a researcher for Legacy Tree Genealogists.
The History of Land Records
The search for new land is one of the main themes of American history, so it makes sense that land records would be an important part of researching that history.
The right to own real estate was not universal in most of the countries from which the majority of American immigrants came. And even when it was possible to own land legally, it was often too expensive and thus out of reach for most people.
As a result, the lure of vast expanses of relatively cheap and plentiful land has proved irresistible to millions of immigrants to American shores over the course of the past 400 years.
The land records created throughout those years to document ownership of all that real estate have accumulated in seemingly limitless amounts. Even in the face of catastrophic record loss in some locations, land records are generally plentiful. They usually exist from the date of formation of colonial, state, and county governments, where the records still exist.
Information Contained in Land Records
Due to the paramount importance of land ownership in what would become the United States, land records often are the only records in which you will find your ancestors mentioned in some areas.
And there’s good news! Land records often state relationships or provide other, indirect, evidence of family relationships. This makes them an invaluable resource for genealogists.
Understanding what kinds of land records exist, where to find them, and how to use them is often critical to solving genealogical mysteries.
4 Types of Land Records and How to Use Them
There are four different types of land records that can play a vital role in your family history research. Let’s take a closer look at what they are and how to use them.
1. Land Deeds
The most essential land record is the deed. Deeds document the transfer or sale of title, or ownership, of a piece of land or other property from one party to another.
Deeds usually concern land, or “real” property, but they also often mention moveable or “chattel” property, such as household goods and even enslaved persons.
Example of deed index, courtesy of FamilySearch
They sometimes, but not always, contain explicit, direct statements of relationship between family members. Sometimes this can be a parent-child relationship, but deeds can also include a list of people who are children or heirs of a particular deceased person who owned the land being sold.
Sometimes the language in deeds involving heirs makes it clear that the heirs are children, sometimes not, so some care must be taken not to assume that all heirs are children. Research in other records sets such as probate, census, and church records may make the relationships of the heirs to the deceased land owner clearer.
In the early years of a settlement, and sometimes later, deeds books also often contained other types of transactions, including the sale of enslaved persons and sometimes even wills. These are often records for which no other copies survive. Thus, surviving deed books should always be checked for ancestors and their family members in every jurisdiction in which you do genealogy research.
Also, remember to check published abstracts of deeds if they exist, as witnesses to deeds were not included in most indexes to the original deed books. Witnessing a deed was one of many ways relatives assisted one another, and thus the presence of one of your ancestors as a witness for someone else suggests they had some kind of relationship, which might lead to the discovery of previously unknown ancestors.
Also keep in mind that not all states required the recording of deeds throughout their history, or did not require them to be recorded in a timely fashion.
Pennsylvania is an example of this lackadaisical attitude to record keeping that now seems foreign. When researching land records in Pennsylvania it is important to remember that deeds for an ancestor might have been recorded years, even decades, after the actual transaction took place. Therefore, always remember to check the indexes for deeds and other transactions many years after the person in question died or left the area.
In other states, such as New Jersey, land was sold at the colony and state level for longer than is typical in other areas and thus land records must be sought at the state or colony level up to that time.
In the case of New Jersey, deeds only began to be recorded in the various counties around 1785. Therefore, New Jersey real property research must be done at both the county and state or colonial level.
In the case of colonies and states with massive record loss, such as Virginia, land records recorded on the state level are often the only records that survive for some counties, and thus are critical for success in navigating such “burned” counties.
2. Land Grants and Patents
Land grants and patents issued by the various colonial, state and federal governments are also an important resource, including land lotteries in states like Georgia.
In many states, such as Pennsylvania and North Carolina, the original applications, warrants, surveys, and patents or grants still exist and can be searched at the state archives or online.
While these documents do not often state relationships, they sometimes do. That was the case with one of my ancestors whose father had applied for a land patent in Pennsylvania in 1787. He died before the patent was issued in 1800, and thus it was granted to his son by the same name. However, the land patent spelled out that the original applicant had died and his son was the person actually receiving the patent.
Land patents and grants, as well as deeds in general, can also document the dates in which an ancestor resided or at least owned land in a given location. This can assist the researcher in establishing timelines for ancestors. It can also help when it comes to differentiating between two or more individuals residing in a given area with the same name. Anyone dreading research on their Smith and Jones ancestors might just find the solution they seek in those old, musty deed books!
Other land records that might prove essential in solving genealogy puzzles are mortgages.
In some states like New Jersey, mortgages were recorded locally earlier than deeds and sometimes survive for earlier years than do deeds.
A mortgage is a promise by a borrower to repay a loan using real estate as collateral—in effect deeding title to the real estate to the creditor if the loan is not repaid.
A similar instrument called a deed of trust, or trust deed, performs the same function with the exception that a third-party trustee takes title if the loan is not paid back in full. In the early years, mortgages and trust deeds were usually contracted with private individuals, but as the banking industry grew in the United States over the course of the nineteenth century, they began to be taken out with banks instead of private persons.
The two parties involved in a mortgage are the “mortgagor” and the “mortgagee.” Indexes can often be found for mortgages using those terms.
However, sometimes early mortgages and trust deeds were recorded in the same books as deeds, so keep an eye out for them.
And remember: the mortgagor is the borrower, while the mortgagee is the creditor.
Don’t be put off by their sometimes-confusing terminology. Old mortgages and trust deeds are some of the most underused land records in existence—yet they can sometimes be the key that unlocks the door to that next ancestor. Don’t overlook them!
4. Tax Records
One other land record that could crack the case is land tax records. Everyone who owned land had to pay taxes on it, at least in theory. Sometimes, land tax books include notations about one person inheriting land from another, or more commonly, the change in owner’s name from one year to the next can indicate inheritance of the land. The absence of a deed or will showing the transfer might be explained by checking the land tax books.
“14th Dec. 1786 Received of Mr. James Brooks Six pounds, Eighteen Shillings and four pence in full for the balance of Samuel Wood Estate Land Tax for 1784 & Half tax for 85.” John Rodes L. Ds. Image courtesy of MyHeritage.
The Law of the Land: Primogeniture and Genealogy
In some cases, the inheritance and real estate laws of the time might allow you to make a determination of parentage even without a will or deed stating the suspected relationship.
The legal concept of primogeniture, or inheritance of land by the first-born son, was in force in many parts of the Thirteen Colonies until soon after independence, especially in the southern and middle colonies. Thus, when a land owner died, his first-born son would often inherit all or most of his land if he died intestate, or without a will.
The emergence of one man as the owner of a given piece of land in place of the previous owner, either as the seller, or “grantor,” in a deed or in the land tax records, could indicate that the previous owner died and the land was inherited by his “heir-at-law,” the first-born son. There might not be any record of this transfer, so knowing the “law of the land” can prove to be instrumental in cracking the case.
In these and many other ways, land records can be used to find direct and indirect evidence of family and other types of relationships, often when no other record does—or even survives. It is for this reason that land records research must be part of any reasonably exhaustive genealogical investigation.
Where to Find Land Records
In some areas, land records are the only records that survive which state relationships or can be used to provide indirect evidence of them.
They also are useful in establishing biographical timelines for ancestors, and to learn more about their lives. They can sometimes also be used to identify the location of ancestor’s farms and sometimes even their original homes, so that today’s genealogists can often literally walk in the footsteps of their ancestors. But where are those records now?
It used to be that if you wanted to do genealogy the right way, one of your first stops had to be at the county courthouse where your ancestors lived. This is still a good practice, as many treasures held within the walls of the hundreds of courthouses scattered across this land are not microfilmed, digitized, or abstracted, and likely never will be.
The Recorder of Deeds and the County Clerk are therefore often the genealogist’s best friends. So, planning a trip to the courthouse or archive where land records are held is still a good idea.
Smyth County, VA courthouse records (Image credit: Margaret Linford.)
But many of us live far away from where our ancestors owned land and lived out their lives. How can we access these records if we don’t have the time or budget to travel to the areas in question?
Thankfully, the digital revolution has made researching land records and other types of documents much easier, but often still time consuming and at times overwhelming.
The land records held at the state level for “state land” states (the original thirteen colonies and the states formed from them such as Maine and Kentucky) are usually indexed. They can often be accessed digitally at the website for the state archives, commercial genealogy sites such as Ancestry.com, or can be ordered via correspondence with the archive.
In states that were part of the old Northwest Territory, such as Ohio and Indiana, as well as the other public land states (any state formed under the Constitution that was not carved out of one of the original colonies), grants from the federal government to the first recorded owner of that land can be found at the Government Land Office site created by the Bureau of Land Management. Their website (available here) allows searches for names of individuals who purchased federal land in public land states. You can even view the digital images of the land grants, including the signature of the President of the United States at the time.
Example of a land patent image.
Other types of records associated with federal land, include:
applications for public domain land grants,
Homestead Act applications,
Freedman’s Bureau land records,
and bounty land warrants and applications for veterans.
These are all held at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. Many of these records also state relationships and add rich detail about the lives of ancestors. However, most of these records have never been digitized and must be searched in person or requested via the National Archives’ online order service.
Land records at the county or town level are still held at the local county courthouse or archive, if they survive. Many jurisdictions have digitized their land records and made them available online, in many cases for free. This can sometimes include the entire run of a county’s land records, back to the formation of the county. County clerks and recorders will also sometimes do research via correspondence, though most are unable to do so due to time constraints.
Land Records at FamilySearch
Most importantly in the field of land records research from a genealogical perspective is the massive digitization project undertaken by FamilySearch, the website for the genealogical Society of Utah.
Millions of land records from all across the United States, and even some from other countries, are available at their website free of charge—and viewable either from the comfort of your own home or at a Family History Center or the Family History Library itself, depending on the license agreement FamilySearch has with the original repository.
This vast trove of land records is almost completely unindexed by FamilySearch and will thus not appear in results using their “Records” search page. They must instead be searched in the “Catalog” search page. (Editor’s note: learn how to search unindexed records at FamilySearch by reading our article: Browse-Only Databases at FamilySearch are Easy to Use.)
Despite not being indexed by FamilySearch, the digitized microfilms themselves usually have indexes, either in separate volumes or at the beginnings or ends of the digitized individual deed books.
Most of the digitized land records made available by FamilySearch date from 1900 or before, so a trip to the courthouse might still be warranted for most twentieth-century deeds and more recent land records research. If all else fails, don’t forget to ask the recorder or clerk for help if you have a limited research goal, such as one deed copy—you just might be surprised how eager and willing they are to help.
If the land records you need are unavailable online or are held in a remote location, consider hiring a professional genealogist to go to the courthouse in person on your behalf. Legacy Tree Genealogists has a worldwide network of onsite researchers who can obtain nearly any record that still exists in most areas. Learn more here about how we can assist you in the search for your ancestors and the records of their sometimes only tangible piece of the American dream—land!
(Editor’s note: Our links to Legacy Tree Genealogists are affiliate links and we’ll be compensated – at no cost to you – if you use it when you visit their website. This page includes a discount code for full service projects, or scroll to the bottom of the page for information about their 45-minute genealogy consultations. Thank you for helping to keep our articles and the Genealogy Gems Podcast free. )
Indeed, land ownership was more widespread in the Thirteen Colonies and the United States than most any other nation on earth. So the good news is that there’s a good chance that some of your ancestors were land owners. However you access them, land records are absolutely critical for success in genealogy and should be thoroughly examined whenever possible. You’ll be glad you did.
Jaye Drummond is a researcher for Legacy Tree Genealogists, a worldwide genealogy research firm with extensive expertise in breaking through genealogy brick walls. To learn more about Legacy Tree services and its research team, visit their website here.
How to name sources in RootsMagic 7 is a matter of personal preference. My preference? Simply and consistently!
Helen recently transitioned from Mac Family Tree 7 to RootsMagic 7. She sent me this question about how to name sources in RootsMagic:
“I stripped out all sources from my old file before exporting the GEDCOM because I wanted to start fresh with a consistent system in RootsMagic 7. I have watched their webinars for sourcing and understand the basic how-to. I’d love to hear your strategy for naming your sources… say census records. If the names are too general, then you have a lot of data entry for each incident. But if the name is too specific, your source list gets very long very quickly. Do you add ID numbers to your sources?
Thanks to Helen for the question! Naming your sources in RootsMagic is really a personal preference, so the first rule of thumb is not so much about what you call them, but rather that you do so consistently. If you have a naming convention that you follow that works, having a very long list won’t be as intimidating.
I used to number my sources long ago in my old database software. Actually that software did it automatically which I really liked, mainly because I put that number in the name of the digital file for the corresponding record image. RootsMagic 7 allows us to attach our images, so that is no longer an issue.
Here’s an example of my simple approach to naming sources:
Record type > Year > Surname > First name (head of household)
Example: Census 1940 Moore Jay Bee
This way, all census records are grouped together in the source list. The date gives me a time frame of reference (i.e. it is Jay Bee Moore my grandfather rather than his grandfather), Surname, then head of households first name.
If the source is about Jay Bee himself, it works. The source may also mention his wife Pauline, and his son Ronald, but I don’t need to take up space including all of those name in the file name. I know that if I need a source for where Pauline was in 1940, I would find her under her husband Jay Bee. This mirrors my hard drive organization methodology, which I teach in my Genealogy Gems Premium videos.
What if there’s another related family on the same page of that census? This is where personal preference comes in. I save that same census page to the other family’s surname folder on my computer as well. Yes, it is a duplication (and I rarely duplicate effort), but in this case it works for me and I’m consistent. I find it fits better with my hard drive organization, and saves me time down the road when I’m working with a particular family. I could have named the source “Census 1940 Kings Co CA ED16-20 p6,” which is indeed one single unique page of that census but that just isn’t as helpful to me later for retrieval.
Remember, these are your sources, and you can do with them as you please. You are the only one who will be working with them. Again, I’m sharing a process that works well for me. And I always keep my eyes open for new and better ways to do things like this, but even when I find them, I weigh them against the question, “Do I really want to invest the time in changing this that I would have invested in research?” Usually the answer is “No!” unless my way has a proven flaw that will cause me more grief in the end.
There are lots of other ways to do it out there. You know me, I often turn to Google for answers. If you have a question, chances are someone out there has had it too. Google can help you quickly tap into answers. A Google search of how to name sources in Rootsmagic leads to a web page called Organizing Source Names in RM5. It’s a discussion forum where someone posted a similar question. There are a couple of very viable options offered and great discussion about how to decide what works for you. This is one reason I like and recommend RootsMagic, which is a sponsor of the free Genealogy Gems podcast–because they provide so many helpful tutorials with their software. Another great resource is a blog series by Randy Seaver (click the label “RootsMagic”) on how to enter a new source and create a citation.
16 million Americans answered the call to serve their country during World War II and tragically over 400,000 never returned home. To honor them, each family of a fallen hero received a banner with a gold star to hang in their window. Now 80 years later, there’s another way to ensure they are honored and most importantly, not forgotten. Today the nonprofit Stories Behind the Stars focuses on researching and writing the stories of every one of the WWII fallen. In this special Veteran’s Day episode of Elevenses with Lisa, Don Milne, founder of Stories Behind the Stars joins me to discuss the project, how to access the stories, and how you can help with the research that ensures that every single one of the World War II fallen are remembered.
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16 million Americans answered the call to serve their country during World War II and tragically over 400,000 never returned home. To honor them, each family of a fallen hero received a banner with a gold star to hang in their window. Now 80 years later, there’s another way to ensure they are honored and most importantly, not forgotten.
Today the nonprofit Stories Behind the Stars focuses on researching and writing the stories of every one of the 421,000 US World War II fallen. I want to share with you how to find them, and how you can help with the research that ensures that every single one of the World War II fallen are remembered.
The Stories Behind the Stars founder Don Milne joins me in this video episode. He’s a lifelong history buff, and a few years ago he decided to write a daily story about one of the US World War II fallen for his blog called WW2 Fallen 100. His effort totaled more than 1,200 stories and has been read more than 1 ½ million times.
After his banking job was eliminated at the end of 2019, Don decided to devote his full time to create Stories Behind the Stars and find volunteers to write the stories of everyone of the 421,000 US World War II fallen.
The Story of a Fallen Hero of WWII
Lisa: I’d love to start by putting the fallen heroes of World War II front and center. Can you share with us one of the stories that has really touched you?
Don: Yes. It’s harder and harder to do that because so far we’ve already done about 13,000 stories. One of the more recent ones that we’ve done on our Pearl Harbor project was a fellow named Don Whitestone. He was on the USS Arizona, the battleship totally decimated at Pearl Harbor. More than 1000 people were killed on that ship, and he was one of those. If you go to the USS Arizona Memorial, you just see a name on the wall. And that’s basically all you know about him.
USS Arizona (public domain)
So, for our project that we’re focusing on right now, is to tell the story of all the men lost at Pearl Harbor, all 2335 of them. We’ve already finished the one for Don Boydston.
Just to give you a little bit of information about him. We know he was from Fort Worth, Texas. He was the youngest of six children. Almost every one of his brothers also enrolled in the military during World War Two. His eldest brother survived the war. His second oldest brother, he was actually in Hawaii the same time as his younger brother. Don was there while he was on shore. So, he would have probably been looking for his brother right after the attack, and wouldn’t have found him because he didn’t survive and they never found his body. He ended up continuing in the military and rose to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. And he received the Silver Star for leading his men against the Germans in France in 1944. He died in 1945 while the war was still going on.
Another brother by the name of Robert served as a lieutenant. He was wounded, but he survived the war and lived to be age 90.
Another brother by the name of Ward, he joined the Army Air Forces. He was on a mission to Tripoli in 1943, in his B24 Liberator, and his plane went down.
So, here’s a family of five brothers. Two of them survived the war, and three of them didn’t. One of them died the very first day of the war, Pearl Harbor, and one of them died during the very last year of the war. It must have been devastating to have a family of five sons and lose three of them. But the father of the family, he did something really interesting. He decided that he was going to write stories, to write letters to the servicemen that may not be getting letters, because back then there wasn’t any social media. You couldn’t pick up a cell phone and talk to people. You had to write letters. And that was like, the thing that all of the servicemen looked forward to is they wanted to get letters from home. And so he made it a project in 1942. He was going to write stories to servicemen who didn’t have someone writing to them. He wasn’t going to be able to write to his son Don because he died at Pearl Harbor. But rather than feel sorry for himself and live with that loss, he decided to write the letters for a long period throughout the war.
He started with 137 different soldiers that he wrote to on a regular basis. So, I think that’s a wonderful thing that I didn’t know about. And all of these men and women who didn’t come home from World War II deserve to be remembered by more than just seeing a name on a memorial or gravesite. So, there’s a lot more Don Boydstuns out there. What we’re trying to do is find volunteers that can help us find those stories.
Lisa: That’s such a fitting story. That father was making sure that the soldiers weren’t being forgotten. You’re in a way, of course, carrying that on today, through your project. And, as you listen to that story, you realize that you think you’re hearing one person’s story. But I’m hearing the story of the parents. I’m thinking about the mom. I just can’t imagine all the sons going to war and losing one. And so really, you’re capturing the stories of many more than the 421,000 fallen.
Lisa: What’s the mission of the Stories Behind the Stars project?
Don: The name of the project kind of tells what we’re doing. It is what they still do today. During World War II when a family lost a serviceman or woman during the conflict, they were given a banner with a gold star on it that they could hang in the window. We want to tell the stories behind those stars.
We have the World War II Memorial in Washington, DC. Th Price of Freedom monument carries that same motif. It has more than 4,000 individual stars, each one representing 100 of the fallen.
Stories behind the stars, our mission is pretty ambitious. We want to make sure that all 421,000 servicemen and women Army, Air Force, Army, Air Force, Navy, Marines, Coast Guard, Merchant Marines, every single one of them will have a story.
Part of the mission isn’t just to have it on some obscure website somewhere. But we want to have it available so anyone can read it at the memorial. It’s got to be super easy to find on a smartphone. That’s our mission. And the only way we can accomplish this is we need volunteers that are genealogy minded, that want to want to do this and do something more than just bring flowers to remember someone on Memorial Day. We’re looking for folks to create a permanent record that will go forward for decades to remember them.
WWII Fallen Resources
The National Archives hosts the following casualty lists on their website:
MyHeritage: Stories Behind the Stars volunteers often use MyHeritage’s photo enhancement and colorization tools on the photos included in the stories, in addition to their genealogy records. Visit MyHeritage.
Up until June 2021, all of the stories our volunteers have been writing were saved directly to Fold3. In the case of the Pearl Harbor project, it was decided to first save these stories to theTogether We Servedplatform because it allows for some extra features not part of using Fold3. However, all TWS content is also shared over to Fold3.
Fold3 recently updated its user interface and this change did not include the automatic transfer of the stories from Together We Serve to Fold3. This is scheduled to happen by December 1, 2021. Once the update is complete, you will also be able to find stories like Don Boydstun’s story on Fold3.
The best place to search for all the completed Stories Behind the Stars stories is at the Stories Behind the Stars page at Fold3. Currently, the search only works for stories saved with the new Fold3 format. As previously mentioned, there are about 10,000 stories saved in the old format and Fold3 is converting those over.
The Pearl Harbor project webpage is still a work-in-progress, and writers are still working on the stories that have been researched. They have about 500 unassigned stories and anticipate a completion date of December 7. Until then, you can find stories at the D-Day page where there is a link that will take you to a page that separates the D-Day fallen by state. You will then find links showing a list of all D-Day fallen from each state.
Volunteer for Stories Behind the Stars
You can help Stories Behind the Stars reach their goal of completing all the stories by the 80th anniversary of the end of WWII in September 2025 by writing one story a week. Visit Stories Behind the Stars and click the Volunteer button.
They occasionally share sample stories on their blog, as well as their podcast. This will help you get the idea of what these stories are like.
From Don: It does attract a lot of people with a genealogical background, but it’s not totally necessary. We’ve also got people with 40, 50 years of genealogy experience that they’re just wonderful at doing the research and stuff.
Basically, what we’re asking people to do is write a short story. We’re not writing a 40,000 word document. We’re basically writing short obituaries. Most obituaries are what 400 to 1000 words, and they just include basic information. And that’s what we’re basically trying to do.
The whole idea is we’re not creating stories that someone’s going to sit down and spend two hours reading. You’re going to go to a grave site, maybe you’re going to Normandy or Arlington, or your closest National Cemetery, where you see flags put out for all those that are in the military. The idea is you’re going to be able to take your smartphone and go up to that grave site and pull up a story and read it right there. Something that you can read in maybe five minutes or so. So pretty much everybody can write an obituary. Unfortunately, all of us probably will have to write an obituary sometime, right. That’s what we’re asking them to do.
We’ve created some training that gives people all the tools they need, so that they’ll feel really comfortable about writing these stories. And if they don’t consider themselves, writers, we have other ways that people can help. They can help with the database. Some people are better at editing than writing. So, we have people helping with that.
Top Tips for Researching WWII Fallen Soldiers and Sailors
When researching the stories of the World War II fallen, Don recommends the following:
Search Ancestry and MyHeritage. Look for all types, particularly the application for a headstone, muster rolls
Search Fold3– search by name and dates such as birth and death.
Organizations partnering with Stories Behind the Stars include Ancestry, MyHeritage, FamilySearch, Arlington National Cemetery, Friends of the National World War II Memorial, The National D-Day Memorial, JustServe.org, BillionGraves, and Together We Served.
From Don Milne:
This project now involves more than 1,500 people from all 50 states and more than a dozen countries. Hundreds are people with a background or interest in genealogy.
We have completed more than 13,000 stories but we still have 408,000 to go.
We completed the stories of all the WWII fallen from one state (Utah).
We completed the stories of all the 2,502 Americans who died in Normandy on D-Day.
We are on pace to complete the stories of all 2,335 Pearl Harbor fallen by December 7.
Arlington National Cemetery gave us their list of WWII fallen buried there. Our plan is to do a story for each of these 7,700 by Memorial Day 2022.
By December 1 there will be an accompanying smartphone app people can use to read these stories at any gravesite or memorial.
1. Video Player (Live) – Watch live at the appointed time in the video player above. 2. On YouTube (Live) – Click the Watch on YouTube button to watch live at the appointed time at the Genealogy Gems YouTube channel. Log into YouTube with your free Google account to participate in the live chat. 3. Video Player above (Replay) – Available immediately after the live premiere and chat.
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The Periodical Source Index known as PERSI is a subject index of an amazing array of genealogy and local history articles published by subject experts in newsletters and periodicals from all over the world. Discover bible records, source materials, ancestor charts, transcriptions of original records, and much more.
Search PERSI and you just may find out that you don’t have a genealogical brick wall after all. We’ll show you how! My guest, Allison Singelton, Acting Genealogy Services Manager at the Genealogy Center at the Allen County Public Library in Fort Wayne, IN will guide you through:
where to find PERSI,
the best way to search PERSI,
and how to obtain copies of PERSI articles.
Video and show notes below:
Watch the Video:
How to Use PERSI like a PRO!
My guest: Allison Singleton, Acting Genealogy Services Manager at the Genealogy Center at the Allen County Public Library in Fort Wayne, Indiana.
What is the Periodical Subject Index known as PERSI?
(00:59) Allison: PERSI, the periodical source index is an index that we create in-house. It indexes periodicals (of genealogical value) from all over the world. These are periodicals such as newsletters, quarterlies, they could be anything from genealogical society publications, special interest group publications, surname or family society publications, or ethnic society publications. So, it’s a little bit of everything.
We are indexing the titles of those articles. It’s a subject index, and it’s full of amazing pieces of information that a lot of people don’t have access to from home otherwise. We’re able to take that information published by people in the locations where these publications are from, people with specific knowledge, that dive into a topic really deep. They’re the experts, the subject experts, and you’re able to get the information from the people who know the most, which is invaluable as researchers.
I absolutely love going through these different records. You may find Bible records, some source materials, ancestor charts, perhaps it’ll be a transcription of original records. You know, in fact, somebody actually found a transcription of records that later burned in a fire. So, that was a very exciting day, there were tears, it was awesome! So, you never know what you can find. Now, I don’t guarantee that everybody’s going to find a gem like that, but there is hope. There’s hope to break through some brick walls, maybe get some research techniques, or at least learn about some different people who are doing research on the same topics as you.
How Old are the Periodicals in PERSI?
(03:09) Lisa: Allison, a lot of these periodicals could be quite old, couldn’t they? I mean, I think about genealogy society newsletters. Those have been around well before we ever got online and started sharing information on the internet. So those included as well?
Allison: 100%. We have periodicals that go back to the 1800s. It’s pretty amazing to go through some of the results. I really enjoy being able to show someone that somebody’s already written something on their family history generations back.
How to Search PERSI
(03:51) Lisa: So, this is an index of a huge collection of genealogical articles published in a variety of Periodicals. You said it was a name index search. We’ve been talking a lot about indexing these days with the 1950 census. People are very aware that they’re going through and grabbing pieces of information out of the census and indexing them. This is sounds like it’s the same with these articles. So, we may not always necessarily search on the name of an ancestor, but rather a topic or a place, would that be fair to say?
Allison: It’s a mix. When articles are written, it’s the title of that article that is typically indexed. The exception is if somebody names an article, something like, Bones, and you don’t know exactly what that is. The indexers will put in that it’s about cemetery records. But it’s basically just going to go by the titles of those articles.
Not all of us have articles written specifically about our ancestors. I recommend doing not just a surname search, but also a location search, and topic search. There’s a lot of different types of searches you can do. We can dive a little bit deeper into that later, and folks are welcome to contact us for assistance. We would love to talk to anyone who wants to dive into PERSI a little bit deeper.
Lisa: The Genealogy Center is a specialty section of the Allen County Public Library in Fort Wayne, Indiana. You guys have an extensive genealogy website we’ve talked about here at Genealogy Gems.Tell us about specifically what we’re going to find at the Genealogy Center website. How do we access PERSI and do these searches that you’re talking about?
Where is the PERSI Webpage?
(05:38) Allison: If you go to our website at GenealogyCenter.org, there is a green button on the left-hand side called Our Resources. Once you click on that, there are two options: Free Databases and On-Site Databases. Free Databases are the ones that you can access from anywhere in the world at any time of the day. Click on that link, then scroll down the menu and click on Periodical Source Index (PERSI).
Best Way to Begin Your PERSI Search
(06:09) Lisa: On the PERSI search page we see a lot of different options. Where do you typically start? Does it depend on what your genealogy question and plan is? Or do you have one favorite kind of starting place for your searches?
Allison: It depends on what my research question is. Typically, I do you like to do a Surname search first, just to see if I’m lucky enough to find an article for the surname I’m looking for. You never know what can pop up.
PERSI Search Strategy: Use Synonyms
(06:47) Once I’ve finished with that, I then go to the Location and start diving a little bit deeper. I’m usually looking for an event, so I want to search for all the different search terms that I can think of that surround that specific event. For example, if I’m looking for a Death Event, I’m going to look up the words death,died, burial, funeral, probate, wills cemetery, anything that has to do with a surrounding a death event. Don’t just search one word. Articles can come up under anything the author thought of to call it and some of them get pretty clever, which is interesting, but unhelpful.
How to Get a Copy of a PERSI Article
(07:41) Lisa: Well, you’ve really whetted our appetite for these really one-of-a-kind kinds of articles that are over at PERSI. How do we get access to the article once we found it in the index?
Allison: That is the beautiful part, you have multiple options.
Contact the Publisher
The first option would be to contact the publisher. I recommend going to the source when you want something. And many times, if you contact a publisher, especially if it’s a smaller periodical, or even a local one, you might be able to just find it online. Perhaps they’ve been digitizing their own periodical. Or perhaps someone would give you a copy. Sometimes there’s a nominal fee.
Search the title in WorldCat
Another option is to search the periodical title in WorldCat. If you’re unfamiliar with it, it’s an excellent research tool for genealogists. It’s a worldwide library card catalog. You can find where a local copy of a periodical would be, and maybe get an interlibrary loan or go to your local library where they have it.
Order from the Genealogy Center
Last, but not least, you can order it from us. There is a nominal fee, and you do get to fill out a form. We will fill your request as quickly as we can but give us about four to six weeks.
Digging Deeper with PERSI Search Strategies
(09:00) Lisa: You’ve given us a fantastic overview. Let’s dig a bit more into PERSI at the Genealogy Center website.
Allison: As I mentioned, the first thing that I typically do is start with a surname search. Something that I think is really interesting is when you have a name, which is a common word. So, one of the examples I like to give, it’s actually a surname that one of my colleague’s searches, Church. When you search church in things like newspapers, you get every church known to man building-wise or denomination, not surnames. The beautiful part of this database is it actually brings up the surnames.
Lisa: Fantastic! We don’t have to slog our way through all those other common words. It knows we’re looking for a surname.
Allison: Exactly! And then once you’re in here, you can search within the results. But if you do the search at the top of the page under the results, it will come up with anything that’s in the title of the article, the periodical, or the publisher. So, if you put in a location, such as Ohio, saying you only want results for Ohio, it’s also going to bring up Ohio if it appears in the name of the publisher. So perhaps it is something you’re looking for, or perhaps not.
Lisa: You mentioned that not everything is indexed in these articles. It’s really like you picked the top pieces of information that we would need in order to search the title, the year, and the publisher, so we’re not going to be doing a lot of just keyword searching.
Allison: Correct. You’re going to be looking for information in the article title. You’re looking for the events that your ancestor was involved in, or occupations, or you’re looking for anything that could have impacted your ancestors’ lives. The wonderful thing about periodicals is a lot of times they can add more of that story to your family tree.
Where are the PERSI articles held?
Lisa: I see an article mentioning Abigail Church Witchcraft Case. It came out of a periodical published in 1924. Is this something you would have on your shelf at the Genealogy Center?
Allison: Yes. The result includes our call number, which tells you exactly where to find it in our library.
A Fourth Option for Obtaining PERSI Articles
(12:44) Lisa: I don’t see anything clickable in the search result. Tell folks again how we get them the article this is referring to.
Allison: We offer the three options I mentioned before: contacting the publisher, searching WorldCat, or ordering from our library. There’s always the fourth option of looking to see if it’s been digitized online. Since the Abigail Church article was published in 1924, there is a good possibility that it might be online somewhere. You can Google search the title of the article and that might bring it up. But the first thing I would do is contact the publisher, Ohio History Connection, and see if they have the periodical available either online or could send you a copy. The next thing I would do is take the title of the periodical copy it and put it into WorldCat to see if it’s available in a location near you. You can simply enter your little zip code at WorldCat, and it will list the holding libraries in the order they are closest to you.
Lisa: That’s just such a great tool.
Allison: It really is! Now if you wanted to order it from us, which you definitely can, there is a link on the results page to order articles. It’s going to bring you to a PDF form, and you get to fill this out and then send it to us via email. It does say that there’s a charge, it doesn’t necessarily need to be prepaid. If you want to prepay it, you’re welcome to. Our address isn’t on this specific form, but you can find our address on our website pretty easily. The most important thing is to fill out the form with the information and know that there is a $7.50 charge for the form. You will be billed an additional 20 cents per copy page. It does take quite some time to pull the articles and then make the copies. Everything is done by hand. It’s not digitized.
Lisa: And will we receive a digital copy, like a PDF? Or do you actually mail us the paper copy?
Allison: It depends on what you would like. I would recommend noting that you would like it via email or a paper copy.
Lisa: And also, I noticed on that form, there’s a spot for several articles. So, since we were going to pay the $7.50, we might want to take a second to see if there are any other articles we want. The form allows us to order several for that one price, right?
Allison: Yes, it’s $7.50 for this entire form which includes up to six articles. The requests are filled in the order that they’re received. We work hard to ensure your order is accurate, and you’re getting the information that you are seeking. In fact, we look to see if there are additional pages that are not included in the article title that are applicable to what you request. So, we are definitely trying to make sure that every customer gets the information that they are seeking.
Lisa: And at the library, you have the advantage of looking at the original, the paper copy, not just in a database, so you can do that little extra search.
I really liked your idea of the Google search. I actually did that with one of the articles I found in PERSI, and discovered that the item was fully digitized over at the Internet Archive. I was able just to go ahead and see it in the moment, which was really neat.
Google Searching for PERSI Articles
Allison: Yes, and I highly recommend that. All you have to do is highlight the article title and copy it. Next, paste that title into Google and see what comes up. If you don’t get a result right away, you can try putting quotations around the title to search it exactly. It’s always worth it to do a search and see if you can find it online for free.
More Strategic Searches at PERSI
(18:03) Lisa: You’ve been at the genealogy center quite some time, and you’ve seen so many of these periodicals. Help the genealogists really fully grasp what the potential is here. How we should be thinking about searching. I’m guessing we’re not always going to be really hyper-focused on our individual ancestor, but we’re going to think about them in the context of their life and see if there’s an article that touches on that. Tell us a little bit about how to strategize.
Allison: Sure, there’s a couple of ways to do it. I prefer to go into the location database and look specifically where they lived. We usually know where our ancestors were, even if it’s just the state. I would search the county and state when possible. Next you’ll get categories that you can look through. You can then see which ones larger and which ones are smaller. In my search History is the category with the largest number of results. Look for things that really stand out. Perhaps I’m looking for World War II information. I would want to click on that topic and then kind of go down and see if it looks like there is a periodical that was published in Fort Wayne.
Lisa: I imagine that when you do find something, let’s say we find an article that really just hits the mark, it tells us the periodical it was published in which might be an opportunity for finding even more in that same periodical. You can just search by publisher?
Allison: Yes, you can search by a publisher, you can search by the year, and you can search for the periodical. So, let’s say we found a ton of what we need from The Beacon. We can just search that publication. There are 323 entries from the Beacon from that total of 370 that we started with.
Lisa: I notice that as you type the results automatically updated.
Allison: Yes, it automatically updates. So, if I want to search for articles on medical topics I just start typing medical in the title. I get four different results. Well, medical is a good keyword, but I might also want to search on Red Cross. You need to be kind of creative with your searching.
Lisa: And I see that it again updates as you type. So, you’re actually kind of testing out med,medic, medical as keywords as you’re typing.
Allison: Yes, I don’t even have to finish the word and I start getting results. Just start playing around with the different terms that you can think of surrounding your ancestors’ lives.
Demystifying the Periodical Subject Index (PERSI)
(24:05) Lisa: I think about how many people have at some point heard about PERSI but then got a little intimidated. They weren’t quite sure how it was going to help, and then when the get to the website they weren’t quite sure how they were going to find what they wanted. Give us your final elevator pitch on why they should invest the time and try the PERSI search engine.
Allison: PERSI is constantly updated. We have around 3 million subject entries and that number is going up. We are constantly adding more information. It’s a database that you’re going to want to search periodically from time to time to see what pieces of information might be there for your ancestors.
We’ve already built the framework for our family trees with the names and dates and places. We want to add more to that. We want to add more of the meat to our family by adding new stories. Our ancestors lived amazing lives, and hopefully searching PERSI can help you find some of those stories. And you know, if you’re looking for ancestors who are proving to be elusive, occasionally you can find information in PERSI that has been previously thought lost.
Lisa: That is such a great point. It’s really not a brick wall, until you’ve made your way to the Allen County Public Library website and the Genealogy Center to check PERSI.
Opening your AncestryDNA account to find a New Ancestor Discovery can be a bit like the experience my nine-year old had at the beach today. He noticed something unusual in the sand on his way down to the beach and excitedly used his hands to unearth the treasure. However, it turned out to be a Captain Hook figurine long lost by another (likely much younger) beach-goer. His initial excitement quickly dissipated. He was disappointed as he had clearly found something he did not need or want.
I have heard from many of you that are confused and disappointed with Ancestry’s attempts to merge your genetics and your genealogy. Keep in mind that AncestryDNA matches are only using your genetics. Your DNA Circles and your New Ancestor Discoveries incorporate your linked treeinto your genetic test results.
Lisa recently forwarded me a comment from Kate that perfectly illustrates the confusion I’m talking about. “We had DNA done thru Ancestry,” she writes. “The results [have] made me seriously question what they are showing me. I believe they are using my tree to show me results that are more vague than they are revealing. The latest example they show is a person not related by blood. This family is related by name only (my uncle’s spouse).
“My results from Ancestry show that they use my tree to make matches. Just checked the web page for DNA results. They show numerous matches….Three or 4 contacted me because they were convinced they were related by blood when they may have had a remote tree connection. They contacted me because the DNA results showed they were a 3rd or 4th
cousin, when in fact they would only be a 3rd or 4th cousin in my tree.”
I can see why she’s confused. First, let’s review what an AncestryDNA New Ancestor Discovery (NAD) actually IS. NAD’s are based on the DNA Circle idea created by Ancestry. Remember that a DNA circle is when Ancestry can identify a shared genetic AND genealogical connection between three or more people. Using various standards and measures, they name an ancestor as your connection. This is the ancestor I affectionately call our Party Host. This is the ancestor who passed his or her DNA down to all of their descendants, like tickets inviting them to this party in the future. So, everyone who holds a ticket, AND who has honored that party host ancestor by placing their name in their pedigree chart, is listed as a guest in the form of a DNA circle connection. (Click here to read a blog post about this concept.)
The New Ancestor Discoveries just take that one step further. The NAD is an attempt to find ticket holders who have not yet taken that extra step and added that important Party Host ancestor to their family tree. The NAD is like a nudge, inviting us to double check our family tree to see if this particular ancestor might need to be added. It is important to remember that a NAD comes only after a DNA circle has already been formed, and there could have been errors in that formation. So the very first thing you need to do with a NAD is to correspond with circle members and double check that the Party Host of the circle, their common ancestor, is correct. Then we can move on to evaluating the NAD.
Ancestry admits on its help pages that there are three reasons why you might get an NAD, and only one is “right” in the way you and I might view it.
The “right” answer comes when the DNA circle was drawn correctly, the Party Host properly identified, and your DNA connection is strong to two or more members of the circle. You are then able to verify through traditional genealogical methods that you are an actual descendant of the Party Host, holding that coveted ticket, shown in blue in this modified image from the AncestryDNA help page.
There are two other alternatives.
First, you are related to the NAD Party Host (the New Ancestor that was discovered) via marriage. In this second example from Ancestry’s help page, we see that your ancestor was married twice. The members of the DNA circle are descendants of her other marriage. Remember, that you do not share DNA with every member of the DNA circle. In this case, you share the purple DNA with a few members of the circle. But there are other members that share the blue. So the super computers at Ancestry first put all the blues together in a circle with the Party Host at the top. Then you come along with purple DNA that matches a few in the circle and their supercomputer erroneously assumes that you too must have been invited to this “blue” party, but in fact, the blue/purple members of the circle are double booked. They have been invited to both the blue and the purple party.
How can you fix this? If you can identify your purple Party Host, then you can add that person to your tree, and the trees of your DNA matches and likely then a new DNA Circle will form with the purple Party Host at its head, and the blue NAD will disappear.
The other situation that many of you are seeing, especially those of you with ancestry from small communities, is demonstrated in Figure 3 of the Ancestry Help page, reproduced here. As you can see, this one is much more complicated. (In fact, the colors I added aren’t even quite accurate, as not all descendants of the blue NAD have the same blue, but rather different shades of blue depending on the segment they received- but this is a story for another post!)
The short of it is, the members of the previously established DNA circle share one single ancestor with each other, but they share multiple separate and distinct ancestors with you. Looking at this chart it seems very clear, but remember, in the database we only see you and the people you match. We cannot tell from the DNA shared which piece came from which ancestor. So, it is very important to check and double check the pedigrees of those in the circle to identify additional shared lines.
The short of it is, these NAD’s are following the guilt by association rule, but in fact, you could be innocent. Just keep in mind the simple principle that you DO share a common ancestor with those members of the circle that you share DNA with. You do NOT necessarily share common ancestry with those in the circle that you do not share DNA with.
The key is to take these NAD’s for what they really are: research suggestions. Keep your expectations low, and then you will be pleasantly surprised when you are able to verify a connection.
Ready to learn more about DNA testing for family history? Click here to watch two video interviews in which Lisa and I chat about genetic genealogy.
My DNA quick reference guides can get you started on your own DNA research, or help you unpuzzle and maximize results you don’t fully understand. Click here to see all six guides: purchase them individually or as value-priced bundles.