WPA Records for Genealogy: Historical Record Surveys, Local Histories and More

Have you used WPA records for genealogy? Their Historical Record Surveys and local and oral histories may help you in your family history research. Existing records and locations vary widely. Here are tips to help you in your search.

WPA records for genealogy

In the late 1930s and early 1940s, employees of the Works Progress Administration (WPA, also known as the Works Projects Administration) created new resources for U.S. genealogical research. It’s possible you’ve even consulted some of these without being aware of their WPA origins. After all, the projects and their formats varied. They didn’t always prominently credit the WPA and some were printed long afterward. We’re going to shine the spotlight on WPA-era local histories, oral histories and statewide Historical Record Surveys.

WPA Records for Genealogy: Local Histories

In Annie Barrows’ novel The Truth According to Us, Layla Beck heads to the small fictional town of Macedonia, West Virginia to write a local history as a WPA assignment. Drama ensues, both in Layla’s personal life and as she tries to learn local stories, which everyone reports a little differently. (We featured this book in the Genealogy Gems Book Club.)

Actually, local histories were written as WPA projects. Their scope, topics, and formats varied, depending on the unique background and resources of each region and how active WPA workers were in each state and county. For example, WPA historical materials in Morrison County, Minnesota include “histories on townships, cities, churches, schools, businesses, the military, and miscellaneous county history topics,” which have since been collected and reprinted by the county historical society. Many historical projects included photographs, such as this one for the city of New Orleans.

WPA Records for Genealogy: Oral Histories

WPA workers also captured oral histories of individuals, too. Many were collected in American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 to 1940, now online at the Library of Congress. According to the collection description, “The documents chronicle vivid life stories of Americans who lived at the turn of the century and include tales of meeting Billy the Kid, surviving the 1871 Chicago fire, pioneer journeys out West, factory work, and the immigrant experience. The documents often describe the informant’s physical appearance, family, education, income, occupation, political views, religion and mores.”

Other important WPA oral histories are narratives of former slaves and their families. You can browse an enormous collection of these online at the Library of Congress. These aren’t the ideal eyewitness accounts we wish for, as they were gathered so long after the end of slavery, from many who were young children at the time. Also, many researchers believe interviewees may not have spoken candidly, especially to white interviewers who may have known them personally.

It’s a long shot to find an ancestor mentioned by name in WPA oral histories. In some instances, pseudonyms were even used for names and places. But, you can still learn a lot from others’ descriptions of daily life and unusual events your ancestors may have experienced.

WPA oral history transcription

From one of the slave narratives mentioned in this article.

Historical Record Surveys

The Historical Record Surveys created by the WPA are among the most genealogically-valuable of their projects. “Under the auspices of the WPA, workers went to archives, historical societies, public and university libraries, and compiled inventories of manuscript collections,” writes Bryan Mulcahy in an online report. “They went to courthouses, town halls, offices in large cities, and vital statistics offices and inventoried records. Besides compiling indexes, they also transcribed some of the records they found.”

Today, many of their efforts still exist. They include indexes to cemeteries, newspapers, and naturalization records, as well as inventories of courthouse records, church records, and other manuscript collections in various archives or libraries. Of course, some records may have been moved or destroyed since inventories were created, but knowing what records existed around 1940 and what they were called may help you locate surviving collections. Some indexes, such as those of cemetery tombstone inscriptions, may actually be more valuable since they captured information from tombstones that may no longer exist or be legible.

A blank WPA Historical Records Survey church records inventory form. Image courtesy of the State Archives of Florida. Click this image to find it online at Florida Memory.

One great example is the Historical Records Survey for the state of Oregon, described as “the most comprehensive documentary project of Oregon history and related records of its time.” It includes historical essays, document transcriptions, interviews, research notes, photographs, pamphlets and more. According to its collection description, “The territorial and pioneer periods of the mid-to-late nineteenth century receive the greatest attention, with an emphasis on the growth of state government and infrastructure, business and agriculture, transportation, education, biography, and relations between social groups. Native Americans figure prominently in this collection.”

Finding WPA Records for Genealogy Online

Some WPA projects were carried out on a federal level and others by state agencies. They were never centrally published or collected. Today, surviving original files and published volumes are scattered across the country. Some can be found in the National Archives, many in state libraries or societies, and many more available at local repositories.

A Google search such as historical records surveys and the name of the state and/or county is a great way to start your search for WPA records for genealogy research. Some results will lead right to the kinds of resources you want, such as this guide to WPA records in archives in the Pacific Northwest. Others, such as this one for the Iowa Historical Records Survey published in The American Archivist, are mostly a history of the effort. However, they do contain several useful bibliographic citations to records that were created. Add the name of the county to your search and you may find more targeted results, such as this library catalog entry for the inventory of the Jasper County archives. Click here to learn more about Google searches for genealogy records you want to find.

Remember, though, that many WPA publications and collections aren’t identified as such. Don’t fixate on needing to find WPA listed in the title. Just concentrate your efforts on finding the local and oral histories, photos, historical record indexes and inventories, and other resources that may be out there. When you find one created during the Great Depression, you’ll know it may have been done by the WPA.

Love what you’re reading and want to learn more? Go deeper into genealogy “gems” like these in Lisa Louise Cooke’s Genealogy Gems Podcasts. Lisa produces a free internationally-renowned monthly podcast that’s had over 2.5 million downloads! Additionally, Genealogy Gems Premium website members also have access to her full archive of monthly Premium podcast epidodes: check out a full description of these here including Episode 2 on WPA records for genealogy.

Episode 206 – Publishing Family History Books

Genealogy Gems Podcast Episode 206

blast from the past podcast episode

with Lisa Louise Cooke

In this Blast from the Past episode:

  • Lisa reprises a favorite research detour into vehicle forensics to identify an old family car and shares tips for creating short family history books like those she given as holiday gifts to loved ones.
  • Hear letters from listeners on a special adoption discovery and a 1940 census mystery that now makes more sense.
  • Your DNA Guide Diahan Southard weighs in with 4 reasons to take a DNA test if you haven’t taken the plunge yet.
  • Genealogy Gems Editor Sunny Morton spotlights the current Genealogy Gems Book Club title, Murder in Matera.
  • The vehicle forensics and family book segments originally appeared in Genealogy Gems Podcast episodes 18 and 13, respectively, and are being republished here for web audiences.

MAILBOX: RICHARD ON THE 1940 CENSUS

1940 census tip: Listen in Genealogy Gems Episode 201 or read it on the Genealogy Gems blog.

Evidentia software helps genealogists organize and analyze their research discoveries. Free 14-day trial available.

MAILBOX: ADOPTEE DISCOVERY

Read the article here.

Tips for using DNA to solve adoption mysteries, taken from a conversation between genetic genealogy experts Your DNA Guide Diahan Southard and CeCe Moore from DNA Detectives.

Join our conversations on the Genealogy Gems Facebook page.

BONUS CONTENT for Genealogy Gems App

Get the app here.

If you’re listening through the Genealogy Gems app, your bonus content for this episode is an audio excursion with Lisa on an old railroad track up to a silver mine in the Colorado Rockies, an excursion she originally shared in Episode 18 of the Genealogy Gems Podcast, not now available online, and is being republished here exclusively for your enjoyment. The Genealogy Gems app is FREE in Google Play and is only $2.99 for Windows, iPhone and iPad users

GEM: MAKING FAMILY HISTORY BOOKS

Genealogy Gems Podcast episode 2 with a segment on transcribing diaries was republished as Genealogy Gems episode 134.

Qualities of a successful short family history book, from Lisa Louise Cooke

  1. The book conveys an overall theme.

Start by reviewing all the available material you have. That will give you a good sense of what the time period was like for your ancestor. You’ll also start to understand their goals, experiences, and emotions.  Ultimately a theme should begin to surface.

In the case of A Nurse In Training, I wanted to communicate my grandmother as a young woman taking on a new adventure away from home that ultimately led to this warm, caring woman’s successful career as a nurse. I also tucked a bonus subplot in there of how she just happened to meet her husband at the same time!

You don’t need every scrap of research and every photo to get this theme across. It’s your job to be a sharp editor and to pick out the critical pieces. You want the words and photographs that clearly communicate your theme to the reader.

#2. The book can be read in one sitting.

Like it or not, if it takes too long read, they probably won’t.  Strive to create a book that doesn’t look intimidating.  I create books that are ten to twenty double-sided pages.  People will be willing to pick up a thinner book off the coffee table.  If it’s well done they’ll find that all of a sudden they’ve finished the entire book without wanting to put it down.  The final goal is that they will walk away with a real sense of having gotten to know that ancestor.

#3. It contains the best of the best of what you have.

This goes back to conveying the theme and being a strict editor.  My grandma had many funny stories, but there just wasn’t room for all of them.  I picked the best of the best.  Anyone who reads the book should hopefully come away with the fact that she had a sense of humor and could laugh at herself.  So keep the content of your book focused, full of graphics and photos, and including the best of the best.  If you can capture their interest in the first three pages, you’ll have them for the entire book.

#4. There are lots of photos and graphics.

A picture is definitely worth a thousand words.  Since the number of words in this size book will be limited, photographs will be your best friend.  If you’re lacking in family photos, many of my previous podcasts will give you countless ideas for locating associated photos.  In A Nurse In Training, I included scanned images of skating rink tickets, programs and announcements from my grandma’s scrapbook, and journal pages in my grandmother’s own hand.  These types of items really add texture and interest to your book, as well as help the reader to see that you’ve really done your homework.

#5. Keep it in chronological order.

This may seem obvious, but it’s easy to get sidetracked and start going back and forth in time.  Believe me, for the reader’s sake keep things in chronological order. You as the researcher know this information backward and forwards, but this is probably your reader’s first exposure to it.  Be gentle with them and keep it straight forward and simple.  Your reader will thank you.

#6. You choose only high-quality images and printing.

High-quality glossy pages, good image quality and a hardcover binding all shout to the reader “I’m worth your time, read me!”  For example, I found a drawing of Dameron Hospital where my grandmother worked, but it was a low-quality image and didn’t translate well in the book.  As much as I wanted to include it, I ended up leaving it out. I’m glad I did; it wasn’t critical to the book and there were other ways to communicate the hospital to the reader.

animoto how a genealogy society can grow membership

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

 

MyHeritage is the place to make connections with relatives overseas, particularly with those who may still live in your ancestral homeland. Click here to see what MyHeritage can do for you: it’s free to get started.

4 REASONS TO RSVP YOUR DNA INVITATION

with Diahan Southard, Your DNA Guide

I used to think that economics was just a series of numbers and calculations that helped to gauge the future growth of companies and countries. In a word: boring. But that was before I discovered that you can study the economics of people and essentially use math to describe human behavior, and therefore in some ways make that behavior more predictable.

This is of course especially intriguing to my current situation as the parent of a teenager, a pre-teen, and a daughter. Teenagers especially are always talking about the things that “everyone else has,” a phenomenon that Malcom Gladwell, one of these interesting people-economists, describes as the “tipping point.” He says that the tipping point is “the moment of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point.” For my kids it’s everything from the point at which a party becomes fun to doing everything that is humanly possible to procure a fidget-spinner (if you don’t know what that is, ask the nearest 11 year old).

In DNA testing in the United States, that tipping point is now. We have reached the point where most genealogists at least have the passing notion that genetics can be useful in genealogy. Most genealogists (I would guess 85%) who attend the lectures I give have already had at least one DNA test completed. Let’s stop for just one minute and recognize how incredible that is! Not too long ago I was still trying to convince people that this was a good idea and that you didn’t have to dig up your ancestors to do it! But now we have scores of genealogists who have not only tested themselves, but have convinced half their family to test as well!

This got me thinking though, who are those people who haven’t tested? And why not? One category of people sans DNA test are those who have full pedigree charts. I have heard many of them say that they don’t see the need to do DNA testing since they have most of their lines “way back.” To those with the blessing of ancestors who kept better records than mine, I am offering four reasons why you should RSVP to your invitation to DNA test.

  1. Record. First and foremost, your DNA is a record. Just as you have obtained birth certificates and marriage licenses for your ancestors, your DNA is a unique record. It does represent you and your family in a way that no other record can. It is a document of your genetic history, and should be preserved. Further, while you may doubt the ability of your DNA to shed light on your current genealogy, don’t underestimate the contribution it might make in the future.
  2. Second Cousins. And third cousins, and fourth cousins, etc. Having your DNA tested means you can see a biological connection between you and other relatives that have had tested. For many, the idea of meeting or forming relationships with distant cousins is not appealing. But even if you have no intention of attending DNA family reunions or even in corresponding with these relatives, there is something reassuring about seeing them there on your match list. There is a certain thrill that comes with recognizing the connection between you and someone else. A connection that may not add any new names to your tree, but it helps you feel a deeper connection to your ancestor, and a greater appreciation for your biology.
  3. Verify. Which brings me to the next point. Seeing these cousins on your list can actually help verify the genealogy you have already collected and documented. It helps to reassure you that you have made the right steps along the way, and may help you gain additional resources about your relative through their descendants that you find on your match list. Resources that can help turn that ancestor from a name on a chart, to a story and a life worth preserving.
  4. Philanthropy. The last reason to go ahead and have your DNA tested is to help others. If you have been lucky enough to fill in most of the blanks on your tree, you can help others do the same by simply having your DNA tested. Your DNA provides a link to your tree that might be just what someone needs to overcome a brick wall in their family history.

So, if you have been hanging out on the outskirts of DNA testing because you feel like your tree is full enough without it, remember to RSVP to your invitation to be DNA tested, and join the party!

GENEALOGY GEMS BOOK CLUB: A FAMILY HISTORY MURDER MYSTERY!

Murder in Matera: A True Story of Passion, Family, and Forgiveness in Southern Italy by journalist Helene Stapinski. A story of poverty and power, love, tragic decisions, and a courageous and desperate woman’s leap for a new life across the ocean.

Murder in Matera continues to unravel a past Helene explored in her fantastic first family history memoir, Five-Finger Discount: A Crooked Family History. Find a whole list of fabulous family history-inspired reading at the Genealogy Gems Book Club!

Rootsmagic

Genealogy Software

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

 

Visit http://www.backblaze.com/lisa

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

GEM: VEHICULAR FORENSICS: Updated links, tips and resources

Here’s the original photo of my grandma next to her father’s car:

The original zoomed in image of the license plate:

The license plate with the “alternative light source” applied:

Since I first published this episode, iGoogle has gone away.

Websites for identifying old cars:

Hubcap Café.com: Collector Car Resources

Flickr group called Vintage Car Identification

From ItStillRuns.com: “Veteran cars were manufactured before 1903, vintage cars were made between 1903 and 1933, and classic cars are considered to be vehicles manufactured from 1933 until fifteen years ago.”

Learn more about ArchiveGrid in Premium Podcast episode 149 (Genealogy Gems Premium subscription required) and in this blog post: How to find original manuscripts and documents using ArchiveGrid.

The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox by Lisa Louise Cooke for Google searches and even YouTube:

The Genealogist's Google Toolbox Third edition Lisa Louise Cooke

Available in the Genealogy Gems Store

Take a ride in a 1928 Willys Knight made in, owned in and driven in Toledo, Ohio”

Forensic Files channel on YouTube

More updated resources:

The Colorful History of California License Plates” in LA Magazine

TIP: Remember that you may be able to make great discoveries IN old photos with your photo editing software (even just with whatever free software is on your computer):

1. Open up the photo editing software

2. Open the photograph in question in the program

3. Use the trim feature to zoom in on the license plate?or whatever feature you want to focus on

4. Zoom in to make it easier to see

5. Try using both the Brightness and Contrast feature of your program in combination until you achieve a favorable result

6. Apply Auto Sharpen for further detail

Savvy tips to help identify old photos

Photo editing apps and software for family history

The Photo Detective by Maureen Taylor is your ultimate guide to identifying old objects in pictures to help you learn more about your family history.

Get the book here

 

PROFILE AMERICA: FIRST TRAFFIC LIGHT

Genealogy Gems Newsletter Sign Up

PRODUCTION CREDITS

Lisa Louise Cooke, Host and Producer
Sunny Morton, Editor
Diahan Southard, Your DNA Guide, Content Contributor
Hannah Fullerton, Production Assistant
Lacey Cooke, Service Manager

Resources

Download the episode

Download the show notes

Genealogy Playlist Ultimate Guide for this Summer’s Road Trips

Summer_Road_Trip_PlaylistAre you going on a road trip this summer? Do you have a genealogy playlist ready? Here are some favorite resources for creating the ultimate genealogy playlist for the open road.

The Apps

Whether you have an Android, Apple, or Windows device, plan your own audio genealogy playlist for your next road trip. Here are some of our top picks:

get the app1.  The Genealogy Gems Podcast App allows you to listen to our regular podcasts with tips and tricks for genealogy and includes extra bonus content you won’t find anywhere else. By downloading the podcast before you hit the road, you won’t have to worry about using your data or hoping you have enough bars! And don’t miss the Bonus content available in many of the episodes. It’s a nice perk of our app.

2. AudioBooks from Audible. Audio books are a great idea for any road trip. For the highest quality reading voice, consider downloading a free app like AudioBooks. With 180,000 available titles, you will be sure to find something you like. AudioBooks offers a free 30-day trial and includes one free audio book. After the trial month, you can download a new book each month for $14.95, or purchase any book you want for the listed price.

3. Kindle Audio App is also free and easy to navigate. Once you have downloaded the app to your device, you can sign-in with your Amazon account to purchase the books you want. You can even sample books before you buy! Kindle Audio App allows you to experience “immersion” reading by allowing reading and listening simultaneously. Or, turn your Kindle e-book into an audiobook by having your iPhone read it to you: click here to learn how.

Genealogy Playlist Book Recommendations

Would you like some great summer reading options? These Genealogy Gems Book Club titles are some of our picks for listening on the road, on the beach, or wherever the sun takes you.

The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson is a fun read about Beatrice Nash who lands in East Sussex, where locals aren’t exactly thrilled to meet her. She spends the summer fighting for her job, meeting a local cast of engaging, eccentric characters (both gentry and gypsy,) and trying not to fall for handsome Hugh. Then, the Great War breaks out. Listen to a free excerpt of an interview with the author in The Genealogy Gems Podcast episode 192.

Orchard House: How a Neglected Garden Taught One Family to Grow by Tara Austin Weaver, author of the internationally-acclaimed blog Tea & Cookies. This memoir is one part food, one part gardening, and two parts family drama, liberally seasoned with humor and introspection. Tara’s mother moves to Seattle to be near her. Together, they purchase a home with a wild garden. The challenge of reinvigorating the garden is nothing compared to the challenge of renewing their troubled relationship. It’s an honest (and mouthwatering) story of planting, cultivating, and harvesting the fruits of family and garden. The Genealogy Gems Premium website members can access the full interview in our premium podcast episode 133 or click here to hear a free excerpt.

The Lost Ancestor (The Forensic Genealogist) by Nathan Dylan Goodwin. This is the most recent book in a “genealogical crime mystery” series by the British author. Forensic genealogist Morton Farrier is hired to find out what happened to his client’s great-aunt Mary, who disappeared without a trace a century ago while working as a maid at a grand English estate. The author joined us on the June podcasts if  you would like to take a listen. Genealogy Gems Premium members can hear the entire interview hereOther titles in the series: Hiding the Past and The Orange Lilies: A Morton Farrier Novella.

Orphan Train, by Christina Baker Kline, spent five weeks at the #1 spot on the New York Times Bestselling list and top of The Bestsellers List in Canada. The novel intertwines the stories of Vivian and Molly. Vivian is an Irish girl who lost her family in New York City and was forced to ride the ‘orphan train’ to find a new home. Decades later, the aged Vivian meets a teenager, Molly, who is struggling to find identity and happiness in the modern foster care system. Click here to catch highlights of our interview with Christina Baker Kline on the The Genealogy Gems Podcast. Genealogy Gems Premium members can click here to listen to the full-length interview.

Find more books we think are perfect for family history lovers at The Genealogy Gems Book Club

Best Genealogy Websites for 2016 Includes Genealogy Gems

Wow! We can’t thank you enough for your overwhelming support of The Genealogy Gems Podcast, website, blog, and our YouTube Channel. Family Tree Magazine listed Genealogy Gems among their 101 best genealogy websites for 2016!Family Tree magazine 110 Best websites for family genealogy

Genealogy Gems Named One of the Best for 2016

Family Tree magazine writer David A. Fryxell wrote the post last week listing the 101 Best Websites for 2016. He said they were searching for “new frontiers in online genealogy [and] sites not afraid to innovate at warp speed.” As you know, we really enjoy sharing new and innovative ways to use technology around here and we are delighted they noticed!

To organize the list of 101 best genealogy websites, Family Tree Magazine broke it down into several categories. Some of the categories included, Best Websites for Exploring Your Ancestors’ Lives, Best Genetic Genealogy Websites, and Best Sites for Sharing Your Genealogy. Genealogy Gems fell into the Best Genealogy News and Help Websites of 2016 and it is because of you, our readers and listeners. Thank you!

Another Milestone: 2 Million Downloads!

2 million downloads

   Above: Podcast Stats Screenshot

As if we weren’t elated enough, The Genealogy Gems Podcast hit 2 million downloads earlier this month! We could never have accomplished this goal without your enthusiasm and support. Thank you for listening, for sharing, and for keeping us engaged in bringing you the best in genealogy and family history research tools.

Genealogy Gems - Family History Podcast and WebsiteDid you know there are two versions of The Genealogy Gems Podcast? Anyone can listen to our free podcasts (nearly 200 to date) and Premium Members can currently listen to an additional 137 exclusive Premium Episodes.

If you enjoy our free podcast, you’re going to love the Premium Episodes. Click here to peruse our vast archive, rich with family history innovation and inspiration. Premium episodes go more in depth and are commercial free!

Also included in Premium Membership is over thirty of Lisa’s most popular genealogy classes on video, complete with downloadable handouts.

What’s New for Genealogy Gems

No time to sit on our laurels because we have loads of gems in the works for the coming year. Would you like to feel more focused and organized? You’ll be hearing detailed strategies for streamlining your family history efforts and reducing overload and disorganization.

Have you seen Lisa’s Tech Tips video series? She launched it this summer to rave reviews and she’s got more incredible strategies on the way to help you save time and get better research results.

Youtube genealogy tech tip videos reviews

Start watching and learning today here at our Genealogy Gems YouTube channel. And to keep in the loop, click the Subscribe button while you’re there!

Getting Help with a Genealogy Brick Wall

Sooner or later, we all hit genealogy brick walls: a point in our family history research where we can’t seem to make any further progress. When I hit a brick wall with great-grandpa Gus in Eastern Europe, I turned to Legacy Tree Genealogists. Here’s what their experts found that I hadn’t discovered for myself.
 
bust genealogy brick wall with new leads
 

My Genealogy Brick Wall in Eastern Europe

My great-grandfather Gustav Sporowski was born in Kotten, Kreis Johannisburg, East Prussia on July 20, 1881. His wife was born in Kreis Ortelsburg in 1878. I’ve found all of her church records, but have had no luck with his.

I’ve met so many people who get stuck researching in Eastern Europe, and East Prussia and the Belarus area in particular. (I strongly suspect that the Sporowski family came from the Sporovo lake region of Belarus). So I invited Legacy Tree Genealogists to take a look at Gus and suggest some next steps. I wondered what someone who specialized in Eastern European research might be able to tell someone like me, who knows how to genealogy but not-so-much in that part of the world.

Reviewing My Work

Legacy Tree Genealogists assigned me to a Project Manager, Camille Andrus, who reached out to discuss what I already knew and what I wanted to learn.

Camille Andrus, Project Manager, Legacy Tree Genealogists.

I requested their Discovery Research Plan, for which they just provide guidance about what record collections to consult and what methods or strategies to try. That way I can do the research myself (which I like doing!). I also asked Camille if she would write about her research process so I could share it with you. Here’s what she sent me:

We looked over Lisa’s work, and upon initial inspection everything looked great.

She had looked in the gazetteer (now available digitally at www.meyersgaz.org with maps of the area) and Lutheran church records. (Editor’s note: Learn more about using Meyers Gazetteer in the Genealogy Gems article 5 Expert Tips for Using Meyers Gazetteer for Your German Genealogy.)

She had searched the records for her ancestor’s supposed home parish. When that failed to yield results, she had done a partial radial search, searching records in several adjacent parishes. Check. Check. Check. She was following all of the integral steps, but still not having success.

What had she missed? What had she done wrong? The short answer — nothing. Her research was impeccable, and she was looking in the right places.

Getting Around the Genealogy Brick Wall

Camille had three specific suggestions for where to look next for great-grandpa Gus. At the end, she also offered some helpful reassurance. Here’s what she said:

1. Civil registration in East Prussia

After closer inspection of what Lisa had already tried, we saw several opportunities we could still pursue.

We looked up civil registration records available through a Polish archive, since what was East Prussia is now part of modern Poland.

Prussia

German civil registration in East Prussia began in October of 1874 and is an important resource for researching individuals from this area.

The Meyers Gazetteer confirmed that Kotten (where her ancestor was from) belonged to Kreis Johannisburg in the German Empire province of East Prussia. This village belonged to the Monethen (Kreis Johannisburg) civil registration district.[1]

Using Meyers Gazeteter for German places

Using Meyers Gazetteer to find German places

The Olsztyn State Archive inventory lists several birth, marriage, death, and family books for the Monethen Civil Registration Office, but the books only cover the late 1930s and early 1940s. The whereabouts of the registers covering 1874 through the early 1930s are unknown.

It appears as though the records covering this time period have been lost or destroyed. This situation is not unusual for East Prussia, in general due to the numerous conflicts that have occurred in the area over time.

2. Church records in East Prussia

Another major resource for German genealogy research is church records.

The Meyers Gazetteer database noted that Protestant residents of Kotten attended church in the nearby town of Baitkowen (Kreis Lyck).[2]

Kreis Lyck in Meyers Gazetteer

The church book inventory for Baitkowen revealed that the Protestant parish was established in 1891, a decade after the ancestor Gustav Sporowski was reportedly born. No sacramental registers for this parish are known to be extant. It should be noted that the Baitkowen parish was created from parts of the Lyck, Ostrokollen, and Drygallen parishes.[3]

The Protestant parish of Drygallen (Kreis Johannisburg) has extant baptismal records which are available on microfilm at the Family History Library for the years 1730-1821 and 1844-1875.[4] Lisa indicated that she had reviewed these files but did not find any Sporowskis.

The Lyck Landgemeinde (the congregation for parishioners living outside city limits) was founded in 1704, but there are no known extant baptismal records for this parish after 1808.[5]

3. Following up on clues

A key clue came from Lisa’s notes. She mentioned that Gustav and his wife were married in Lütgendortmund, a town hundreds of miles west of Gustav’s birthplace, before ultimately immigrating to the United States.

Louise at the time of her marriage

Louise at the time of her marriage

Luckily, their marriage occurred in a time when civil registration had been instituted. A search for marriage records showed there are civil registration records available for the town of their marriage, which are available at an archive in Detmold.

We were able to advise Lisa that further research should pursue this record, as it may list information about his parents.

The Protestant Bartholomew Church in Lütgendortmund, Dortmund, Germany. Von Smial – Eigenes Werk, FAL. Click to view.

The Bottom Line

The bottom line is if you feel stuck, it’s not necessarily because you are doing anything wrong.

Review the “checkboxes” of your research plan to ensure you aren’t missing any integral clues.

If after final review of methodology concludes that you’ve pursued every avenue, the lack of success may be attributed to gaps in the records or perhaps they have been lost completely. Other times all you need is one clue to put you back on the right track.

This is exactly the kind of advice I was hoping for: expert and specific!

Hire a Professional Genealogist for a Quick Consult or Project

If you have hit a genealogy brick wall in Eastern Europe (or anywhere else) and would like a professional to review your work, I recommend contacting Legacy Tree Genealogists. They have helped many clients like me to solve their family history mysteries, and would love to help you as well!

You can hire a genealogist like Camille through their Genealogist-on-Demand™ service. Receive research strategies and advice from a professional genealogist during your 45-minute consultation that will help you continue your own research. Your virtual genealogy consultation will allow you to have your questions answered in real-time by an expert–all from the comfort of your own home!

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Disclosure: This article contains affiliate links and Genealogy Gems will be compensated if you make a purchase after clicking on these links (at no additional costto you). Thank you for supporting Genealogy Gems!

[1] Search the Meyers Gazetteer, Kotten, Johannisburg, Allenstein, Ostpreussen, Preussen, http://meyersgaz.org/place/11050078, accessed August 2017.

[2] Search the Meyers Gazetteer, Kotten, Johannisburg, Allenstein, Ostpreussen, Preussen, http://meyersgaz.org/place/11050078, accessed August 2017.

[3] Ostpreussen, Genealogische Quellen, Kirchbuchbestände Kreis Lyck, ev. Baitkowen (Baitenberg), http://wiki-de.genealogy.net, accesesed August 2017.

[4] Ostpreussen, Genealogische Quellen, Kirchbuchbestände Kreis Johannisburg, ev. Drigelsdorf (Drygallen), http://wiki-de.genealogy.net, accesesed August 2017.

[5] Ostpreussen, Genealogische Quellen, Kirchbuchbestände Kreis Lyck, ev. Lyck Stadtgemeinde, http://wiki-de.genealogy.net, accesesed August 2017.

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