We have five strategies for researching disasters for family history. They come in response to a listener email about her own “disaster-prone family.” Use these tips to learn about natural or man-made disasters, epidemics, travel accidents, and more that affected your ancestors, and very possibly more about your ancestors role in these events.
View of Eastland taken from Fire Tug in river, showing the hull resting on it’s side on the river bottom. Wikimedia Commons image; click to view with full citation.
It might seem a little sad to search out disasters, epidemics, and accidents in the lives of your ancestors, but it certainly helps us see things in a different light. Genealogy Gems Editor Sunny Morton has shared recently how enthralling it has been for her to dig deeper into her ancestor’s experience of living through the Johnstown Flood. She used many of the tools I write about extensively in my book The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox (Google Books, Google Earth Pro, and even YouTube) to add an amazing amount of meat to the bones of the story.
I also recently received an inspiring letter from Natalie, a Genealogy Gems Premium Member about how researching disasters in her family history turned her into a passionate genealogist. Here’s what she said:
“Dear Lisa and Company,
I just subscribed to your Premium podcast and must say that listening to Premium Podcast episode 143 affirmed that I made an excellent decision!
I also had family members who were in the Johnstown Flood, since that’s where my family initially immigrated. My parents and I were born there and [I] have heard of stories of the Great Flood of 1889 since I can remember. There was a long-standing family story about my 2nd great-aunt, Julia Pfeiffer Rohr, being pulled out of the floodwaters by her hair.
Ironically or not, my ancestors relocated to Chicago a few years after the Johnstown Flood, only to have my maternal grandmother’s sister (who was a few months away from her 19th birthday) killed while aboard the Eastland [steamship in 1915]. Not sure why some families are ‘disaster prone’ through the generations, but ours seems to be one of those.
I learned about the Eastland Disaster as an adult when my mother’s half-sister in Chicago wrote and shared a family history with me. As a Twin Cities journalist, I published an article (click here and go to page 5) in one of the community newspapers about the disaster.
Still, at the time, I found next to nothing on the Eastland, which was both frustrating and puzzling. [Since then,] I’ve done a ton of research on the event and have written larger pieces, including a to-be published book. I didn’t intend to become an expert on a shipping disaster, but that’s what happened. Also, this marked my entrance into the amazing world of family history.”
5 Tips for Researching Disasters in Family History
Learn more about the disasters your own family experienced with these 5 tips that I shared with Natalie in the Genealogy Gems Premium Podcast episode 145. Although these tips are for researching the Eastland disaster specifically, you can absolutely put them to work for you!
1. Start with Google.The world’s leading search engine, Google.com can lead to rich resources you may never find in a local library or archive. In the case of the Eastland disaster, a Google search immediately brought up a website dedicated to the event. The casualty list had everyone’s name, age, gender, marital status, ethnicity, and the cemetery in which they were buried.
2.Next, we go to Google Books, where Google takes you deeper and more specifically into historical books. Using the Eastland disaster as our criteria, the first result was a published final report by the American Red Cross’ disaster relief committee on what happened, and how the affected families were helped. Several published histories of the disaster were also listed there. These can be purchased, or you can find copies of them through inter-library loan at your local library. If you just want to see which books in the search results can be read for free, click the Tools button under the search box, and a new menu bar will pop up. Click Any books, then choose Free Google eBooks, like so:
Watch my free video tutorial on finding free e-books on Google. This video is one in a series of tech tip videos available for free at my YouTube channel. Click the Subscribe button while you’re there and you will be notified each time a new genealogy video is published.
3. Keep checking back! New things come online every moment of every day. In 2015, historical video footage about the Eastland disaster was discovered and identified in an online archive (see my blog post about that). But of course it’s impossible to rerun the same searches every day looking for new and updated material. The answer: set up a Google Alert for your search query. That way Google will do the searching for you, and you will receive an email only when Google finds new and updated items that match your search terms. Read my article on How to Set-up Google Alerts for step by step instructions on how to set up your own Google Alerts. Then read How to get the Most out of your Google Alerts for Genealogy.
5. Explore Gendisasters.com.This site compiles information on all kinds of tragedies from the past: tornadoes, fires, floods, and buggy-related disasters are just a small sampling of what they cover. You can search by type of disaster, but if you’re not quite sure how it might be filed (like was it a drowning or a ship disaster?), then search by year or place. I looked for Eastland disaster first under ship disasters, and I saw that events are listed alphabetically by place, specifically by city in most cases. There isn’t a way to jump easily to “Chicago,” so I had to scroll through several pages, but I did find it under Chicago, IL Steamer Eastland Disaster, July 1915. Since I already knew the city and date, I could have gotten to it faster by searching under those tabs, but I sure saw just how many events are cataloged at Gendisasters.com. It’s amazing!
Avoid Disaster with the Right Tools
Lastly, some of the disasters you are researching may have a website dedicated to it. The Eastland disaster webpage has several interesting pictures of the ship and the disaster itself. There’s a nice long narrative about the tragedy and some transcribed newspaper articles, as well.
Researching disasters for family history can be exciting and enjoyable. The world wide web is truly like a time machine. See what other ways you can use Google for genealogy in my book, The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox.Effective Google searches, Google Earth, Google Alerts, and Google Translate are just the tip of the iceberg! You will become a Google guru in no time.
Google Drive is giving some of their competitors a run for their money. This free google tool is just what genealogists are looking for to create, consolidate, and organize their files.
I have been using Google Drive for about a year now. I upload my family photos, GEDCOMs, and my family history notes to the drive. I love the ease in which I can save these things to the cloud and rest knowing my hard work is safely backed up. You can imagine my excitement when our Google expert, Lisa Louise Cooke, shared her new premium video: All About Google Drive. There is so much more I didn’t know Google Drive could do!
Lisa shares ten benefits to using Google Drive and how it packs a powerful punch. Used as a file hosting service, Google Drive can offer you more free storage than Dropbox. Further, Google Drive may be a viable competitor to Evernote for several reasons. You can store files, create files, and edit them all via Google Drive. What’s even better is that Google Drive works across all different computing devices like PC, Mac, Windows, Android, and Apple. This means that syncing and accessing it all has never been easier.
Getting More from Google Drive
But wait, there’s more! Just when you thought you have heard it all, Lisa shares the power of the companion tool, Google Docs, to create documents, drawings, forms, and more. Haven’t had the money to purchase Microsoft Office yet? Not a problem! Google Docs is free to use. Lisa walks you through how to create and save a document and other files by using Google Docs. It is so easy!
You will continue to be amazed at the Google Extensions that are available from the Google Store. I had no idea there were so many. I was particularly excited to hear how I could easily save and clip items from webpages. Imagine finding a digital image of your great-grandmother’s obituary you want to save. How do you do that without having to save the whole page? There’s a Google Extension for that!
Google Drive, Google Docs, and the many extensions available really pack a powerful punch. Watch All About Google Drive to learn more about these knock-out features!
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.
Betty has at least 130 good reasons to use Google Books for genealogy! She used this powerful Google tool to find her ancestor’s name in a book–which led to a treasure trove of his original letters in an archive. Here’s what happened–and how to try this with your own family history research.
You’ve heard me say that Google Books is the tool I turn to every day. Now, you may be thinking, “But my ancestors wouldn’t be in history books!” Resist the temptation to make assumptions about sources, and about your ancestors. With over 25 million books, Google Books is more likely to have something pertinent to your genealogy research than you think. And as I often tell my audiences, those books can include source citations, providing a trail to even more treasures.
Why to Use Google Books for Genealogy: Success Story!
At the National Genealogical Society conference this past spring, Betty attended my class and then stopped by the Genealogy Gems booth to share her story. I recorded it, and here’s a transcription:
Betty: I was stuck on my Duncan Mackenzie ancestor, so I put his name in Google Books, because when you’re stuck, that’s what you do!
Lisa: Yes, I do!
Betty: So, up popped this history of Mississippi, it was sort of a specific history, and it said Duncan Mackenzie had written a letter to his brother-in-law in North Carolina from Covington County, Mississippi. And of course I already had my tax records and my census records that placed him in Covington County. This was in the 1840s. I thought, this just couldn’t be him! Why would any of my relatives be in a book? [Sound familiar?]
So, finally, weeks later, it occurred to me to go back and look at the footnotes in the book, and I found that the letters could be found in the Duncan McLarin papers at Duke University. So, I didn’t even think to even borrow the microfilm. I just told my husband, “next time you go East for work, we need to go by Duke University.” So I set up a time, and I went, and it WAS my great-great-grandfather who wrote those letters! I have now transcribed 130 letters from that collection. They let me scan them all, and I’ve been back again to scan the rest of the legal papers.
Lisa: So, an online search into Google Books not only help you find something online, but it led you to the offline gems!
Betty: And it just changed my life! Because I spend all my time on these letters. It’s distracted me from other lines! [LOL! I get that!]
How to Use Google Books for Genealogy
Are you ready to put Google Books to work in your own research and discover some genealogy gems of your own? Here, I re-create Betty’s search for you, so you can see how to get started:
1. Go to Google Books (books.google.com). Enter search terms that would pertain to your ancestor, like a name and a place.
2. Browse the search results. The first three that show up here all look promising. Click on the first one.
3. Review the text that comes up in the text screen. As you can see here, Duncan McKenzie of Covington County is mentioned–and the source note at the bottom of the page tells you that the original letter cited in the book is at Duke University.
Learn More about Using Google Books for Genealogy
Learn more by watching my free Google Books video series at the Genealogy Gems YouTube Channel. Click the video below to watch the first one. (And be sure to subscribe while you’re there, because there are more videos to come!)
Then, watch the video below for a quick preview of my full one hour video class (and downloadable handout) called Google Books: The Tool You Need Every Day!, available to all Genealogy Gems Premium Members.
Using passport applications in genealogy can lead to family history discoveries! See how this intrepid researcher tracked down passport applications that weren’t online. And then see what he learned about the life of a birth mother after she gave up her child in the...