My genealogy research looks a lot like yours. Some family tree lines go back to pre-Revolutionary War. Other lines are richly researched well into the early 19th century.
And then there’s THAT family line. You know the one I mean. The one where the courthouse containing the records we need has burned down, or the records were microfilmed ages ago but are still sitting in the FamilySearch granite vault due to copyright issues. Or worst of all, it appears the needed records just don’t exist.
Don’t let these obstacles allow you to give up hope.
Every day, new records are being discovered and digitized. Records that have been languishing in a copyright stalemate might suddenly be cleared for publication. Or a cousin could contact you out of the blue and has the letters your grandmother sent hers. We never know when the records we’ve been waiting for, searching for, and yearning for, will bubble up to the surface.
Today I’m happy to share my story of a recent breakthrough that I never saw coming. Follow along with me as I take newly unearthed rocks and use tools to turn them into sparkling gems.
This is Almost Embarrassing
My one, agonizing family line that stops short in its tracks ends with my great grandfather Gustave Sporowski.
Gustave and Louise Sporowski (personal collection)
It’s almost embarrassing to admit. I’ve been at this nearly my whole life, and genealogy is my career for goodness sake! But there it is, a family tree with lovely far-reaching limbs except for this little stub of a branch sticking out on my maternal grandmother’s side.
I was about eight years old the first time I asked my grandma about her parents and their families. (Yes, this genealogy obsession goes back that far with me!) I still have the original page of cryptic notes she scratched out for me during that conversation.
Excerpt from Grandma’s original notes. (Personal collection)
She had several nuggets of information about her mother’s family. However, when it came to her father Gustave, she only recalled that he was the youngest of seven brothers. No names came to mind. I’ve always felt that if I could just identify some of the brothers, one of them may have records that provide more details about their parents.
According to his Petition for Naturalization, Gustave Sporowksi and Louise Nikolowski were married in LutgenDortmund, Germany. This indicated that both moved west from East Prussia before emigrating. While I knew Louise’s immediate family were in the LutgenDortmund area as well, I had no idea whether Gustave moved there on his own or with his family.
Gustave Sporowski’s Petition for Naturalization.
Gus (as he was later known) emigrated from Germany in 1910, landing at Ellis Island. He toiled in the coal mines of Gillespie, Illinois, and eventually earned enough money to move his wife and children west to California in 1918.
After filing his papers and years of waiting, he proudly became a U.S. citizen in 1940.
On that paperwork, he clearly states his birthplace as Kotten, Germany. You won’t find this location on a map today. In 1881, the year he was born, the area was East Prussia. I remember the hours I spent with gazeteers many years ago trying to locate that little village nestled just within the border of Kreis Johannisburg. Being so close to the border meant that he could have attended church there or in a neighboring district.
The records in the area are scarce, and today the entire area is in Poland.
Surprisingly, the records situation is quite the opposite with his wife Louise, also from East Prussia. She lived not far away in Kreis Ortelsburg, and the records for the church her family attended in Gruenwald are plentiful. I’ve managed to go many more generations back with her family.
And so, poor Gus alone sits in my family tree.
I periodically search to see if there’s anything new that has surfaced, but to no avail. I even hired a professional genealogical firm to review my work and suggest new avenues. I guess it is good news to hear you’ve pursued all known available leads, but it’s not very rewarding.
Over time, we tend to revisit tough cases like this less frequently. They become quiet. Digital dust begins to settle on the computer files.
And then it all changes.
German Address Books at Ancestry.com
I regularly make the rounds of the various genealogy websites, making note of new additions to their online collections. I typically publish the updates on a weekly basis here on the Genealogy Gems blog. It makes my day when readers like you comment or email, bursting with excitement about how one of the collections I mentioned busted their brick wall. I love my job.
This week I’m the one who is bursting!
It started simply enough. My third stop on my regular records round-up tour was Ancestry.com. The list of new records was particularly robust this week. The word “Germany” always catches my eye, and the second item on the list jumped out at me:
“Recently Added and Updated Collections on Ancestry,” Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 05 Sept 2019)
I should have had a healthy dose of skepticism that I would be fortunate enough to find anything. But to be perfectly honest, I felt instinctively that I would! Have you ever just had that feeling that your ancestors are sitting right there ready to be found? If you’ve been researching your family history for a while, then I’m guessing you have. Such a nice feeling, isn’t it?
So, I clicked, and I simply entered Sporowski in the last name field and clicked Search.
Experience has taught me that there haven’t been a lot of folks through history with this surname, so I’m interested in taking a look at anyone who pops up in the results. And yippie aye oh, did they ever pop up!
The results list include 31 people with the surname of Sporowski!
These names came from the pages of address books much like the city directories so common in the U.S. Since this collection was new to me, I took a moment to read up on the history.
GENEALOGY RESEARCH TIP: Learning the History of the Genealogy Record Collection
To truly understand what you are looking at when reviewing search results, we need to acquaint ourselves with the history of the collection.
Why was it created?
What does it include?
What does it not include?
Look to the left of the search results and click Learn more about this database.
It’s definitely worth clicking this link because the next page may also include a listing of Related Data Collections, some of which you might not be aware. These could prove very useful, picking up the pace to finding more records.
In the case of foreign language records, look for a link to the Resource Center for that country. There you may find translation help and tips for interpreting handwriting and difficult-to-read script.
Ancestry Help Features
On the Learn more about this database page, I learned some important things about these search results.
First, not every citizen was listed. Only heads of households were included. This means that wives and children would not appear. I did find some widows, though, because they were the head of their household.
Second, Optical Character Recognition (OCR) was used on this collection. Ancestry suggests looking for errors and providing corrections. But this information about OCR also implies something even more important to the genealogist. We must keep in mind that OCR is not perfect. In this case, I planned on browsing the collection after reviewing the search results to ensure I didn’t miss anyone. This would include targeting people listed in the “S” section of directories for towns I might expect the family to be.
I was particularly thrilled to see the name “Emil Sporowski” on the list.
Several months ago I found a World War I Casualty list from a newspaper published in 1918.
On it was listed Emil Sporowski and he was from the village of Kotten. This was the first mention of Gustave’s birthplace in the record of another Sporowski that I had ever found. So, you can imagine my delight as I stared at his name in the address book search results.
The icing on that cake was that he was listed in the address book of Bochum. That town name was very familiar to me because I had seen it on a few old family photos in Louise Sporowski’s photo album. Although the photos did not have names written on them, I could easily identify the folks who had the facial characteristics of Louise Nikolowski’s clan, and those sporting the large eyes with heavy lids like Gus.
Photo from Louise Nikolowski’s photo album.
Spreading the German Addresses Out with Spreadsheets
With one and a half pages delivering a total of 31 Sporowski names, I knew I had some work ahead of me to tease them apart. This got me thinking of Genealogy Gems Podcast episode that I’m currently working on, which features a conversation with professional genealogist Cari Taplin. When I asked Cari how she organizes her data, she told me that she uses spreadsheets. I’m not typically a spreadsheet kind of gal, but in this case, I could see the benefits. Spreadsheets offer a way to get everybody on one page. And with the power of Filters and Sorting you slice and dice the data with ease. My first sort was by town.
My Excel spreadsheet tracking German Address Books search results at Ancestry.com
GENEALOGY RESEARCH TIP: Free Genealogy Gems Download
Click here to download the simple yet effective spreadsheet I used for this research project. If you find your German ancestors in this collection, it’s ready to use. Otherwise, feel free to modify to suit your needs in a similar situation.
As you can see in the spreadsheet, these address books include occupations. For example, Emil was listed both as a Schmied and a Schlosser. A simple way to add the English translation to my spreadsheet was to go to Google.com and search Google Translate. Words and phrases can be translated right from the results page.
Translating the Occupation found in the German Address Books using Google Translate (Available at https://translate.google.com. Accessed 05 Sept 2019)
You can also find several websites listing German occupations by Googling old german occupations.
I quickly ran into abbreviations that were representing German words. For example, Lina Sporowski is listed with as Wwe .
A Google search of german occupations abbreviations didn’t bring a website to the top of the list that actually included abbreviations. However, by adding one of the abbreviations to the search such as “Wwe.” it easily retrieved web pages actually featuring abbreviations.
GENEALOGY RESEARCH TIP: Use Search Operators when Googling
Notice that I placed the abbreviation in quotation marks when adding it to my Google search query. Quotation marks serve as search operators, and they tell Google some very important information about the word or phrase they surround.
The quotation marks tell Google that this word or phrase must appear in every search result. (If you’ve ever googled several words only to find that some results include some of the words, and other results include others, this will solve your problem.)
They also tell Google that the word(s) MUST be spelled exactly the way it appears on each search result. This is particularly helpful when searching an abbreviation like Wwe. which isn’t actually a word. Without the quotation marks, you will likely get a response from Google at the top of the search results page asking you if you meant something else.
Katherine was my guest on Genealogy Gems Premium Podcast Episode #151 available exclusively to our Premium eLearning Members. She’s also written a couple of articles for Genealogy Gems on German translation:
As it turns out, Wwe. stands for Widow. This tells me that Lina’s husband was deceased by 1961.
Finding the German Addresses in Google Earth
The most glorious things found in these old address books are the addresses themselves!
Google Earth is the perfect tool to not only find the locations but clarify the addresses. Many were abbreviated, but Google Earth made quick work of the task.
Unlike other free Google Tools, Google Earth is available in a variety of forms:
Free downloadable software
Google Earth in the Chrome Web browser
A mobile app
Each has powerful geographic features, but I always recommend using the software. The web version and app don’t have all the tools available in the software. All versions require an internet connection. You can download the software here.
In the Google Earth search box I typed in the address. Don’t worry if you don’t have the full address or if you think it may be spelled incorrectly. Google Earth will deliver a results list of all the best options that most closely match.
In my case, reliable Google Earth not only gave me complete addresses, but also the correct German letters.
I went through the entire list. As I found each location in Google Earth, I checked it off on the spreadsheet.
Addresses found in German Address Books at Ancestry.com marked in the spreadsheet
GENEALOGY RESEARCH TIP: Create a Folder in Google Earth
When you have several locations like this to plot, I recommend creating a folder in the Places panel in Google Earth. It’s super easy to do and will help you stay organized. Here’s how:
Right-click (PC) on the MyPlaces icon at the top of the Places panel (left side of the Google Earth screen)
Select Add > Folder in the pop-up menu
A New Folder dialog box will appear
Type the name of your folder
Click OK to close the folder
You can drag and drop the folder wherever you want it in the Places panel
Click to select the folder before placing your Placemarks. That way each placemark will go in that folder. But don’t worry, if you get a placemark in the wrong spot, just drag and drop it into the folder.
The beauty of Google Earth as that you can start to visualize your data in a whole new way. Zooming out reveals these new findings within the context of previous location-based research I had done on related families. As you can see in the image below, all the Sporowskis that I found in the German Address books at Ancestry.com are clustered just five miles from where photos were taken that appear in Louise Sporowski’s photo album.
I’ve Only Just Begun to Discover my German Ancestors at Ancestry.com
We’ve covered a lot of ground today, but this is just the beginning. There are additional sources to track down, timelines to create, photos to match up with locations, and so much more. In many ways, I’ve only scratched the surface of possibilities. But I need to stop writing so I can keep searching! 😊
I hope you’ve enjoyed taking this journey with me. Did you pick up some gems along the way that you are excited to use? Please leave a comment below! Let us all know which tips and tools jumped out at you, and any gems that you found.
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In this episode, Irish expert Donna Moughty joins host and producer Lisa Louise Cooke to talk about Irish genealogy to help you get a jump on yours before everyone starts talking about their Irish roots on St. Patrick’s Day next month! Also in this episode:
Your DNA Guide Diahan Southard has DNA news
Other listeners write in with inspiring successes
Michael Strauss musters in with tips on finding your ancestors in the five branches of the U.S. military.
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.
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 https://www.backblaze.com/Lisa.
INTERVIEW: DONNA MOUGHTY ON IRISH RESEARCH
The following review appeared in the January 2018 newsletter of the Midwest Genealogy Center, Mid-Continent Public Library:
“If you want a quick guide on how to get started on Irish research, this short, four-page guide is an excellent resource. This guide will help you start your research in the United States, so you can figure out where in Ireland your ancestor came from. It is organized into 12 steps with helpful websites added. This guide is the first in the Irish Research Series by Donna M Moughty.”
Donna Moughty, shown left with Lisa Louise Cooke, is a professional genealogist and former Regional Manager for Apple Computers. She has been conducting family research for over 20 years. She teaches classes for beginners and lectures on a variety of subjects including Internet, Irish research, and computer topics. In addition, she provides consultations, research assistance, and training. She is a member of Association of Professional Genealogists and the Genealogical Speakers Guild.
Preparing for Success in Irish Records Research – Guide #1 (reviewed above): Without the right preparation, researching in Ireland can be frustrating! Before you jump the pond, start your research at home to determine a place in Ireland, as well as details to help differentiate your person from someone of the same name. This research guide will walk you through the process of identifying records in the US to set you up for success in your Irish research.
Irish Civil Registration and Church Records – Guide #2. Civil Registration for all of Ireland began in 1864, with Protestant marriages dating back to 1845. Even if your ancestors left before that date, they likely had relatives that remained in Ireland. Prior to Civil Registration, the only records of births (baptisms), marriages or deaths (burials) are in church records. This Reference Guide will explain how to use the new online Civil Registration records as well as how to identify the surviving church records for your ancestors in Ireland.
Land, Tax, and Estate Records – Guide #3 (NEW!). Had the Irish census records for the 19th century survived, Griffith’s Valuation, a tax list, would not be one of the most important resources for Irish researchers. Without any context, however, it can just seem like a list that includes lots of people of the same name. This Guide explains how and why Griffith’s Valuation was done, and how to use it to glean the most information about your family. Once you know your ancestor’s locality in Ireland, Griffith’s Valuation can place them on a specific piece of land between 1846 and 1864. After Griffith’s Valuation, the Revision Books allow you to follow the land and in some cases, to the 1970s, possibly identifying cousins still living on the land.
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.com.
MyHeritage.com is the place to make connections with relatives overseas, particularly with those who may still live in your ancestral homeland. Visit www.MyHeritage.com
Each of the military branches is listed below, detailing information about when each was organized and resources available to genealogists on your ancestors who served in any of these branches.
United States Army. The largest of the five military branches dates back to June 14, 1775, during the early days of the Revolutionary War. Prior to the formation of the Army, each colony had companies and battalions of Associators and local militia. With the war, the need for a professional standing army to fight the British saw the formation of the Continental Army.
With the end of the Revolutionary War, the Army disbanded in 1783 after the signing of the Treaty of Paris. Later in 1796, two legions formed under the command of General Anthony Wayne would later become the nucleus of the United States Army. The Encyclopedia Britannica published this nice article on the history of the Army from its inception to the present.
A number of excellent genealogical resources are available to search for ancestors who served in the United States Army since the beginning. These databases are found on Ancestry, Fold3, and Family Search. One of the largest collections of records covers the United States Regular Army enlistments from 1798 to 1914 (available by subscription at Ancestry.com). Searching the card catalogs of Ancestry.com, Fold3and FamilySearch will yield many databases that contain information about soldiers who served, and sacrificed their lives with the Army over the last two centuries.
United States Navy. The United States Navy dates from October 13, 1775 when it was officially established by an Act passed by the Continental Congress. At the end of the Revolutionary War it was disbanded, and again reestablished under the Naval Act of 1794 which created the Navy as a permanent branch of the military.
The history of the Navy and technology can be divided into two major eras. The earlier period, called the “Old Navy,” was the age of wooden sailing ships, and still later came the birth of the ironclads during the Civil War. The later period called the “New Navy” occurred with further innovations in late nineteenth century as the United States transformed into a global power recognized the throughout the world.
The United States Navy website has a nice background history of the service. Numerous databases and searches for records of the Navy covering multiple war period detailing pensions, continental sailors, muster rolls, ships logs, and cruise books are located on Ancestry.com, Fold3and FamilySearch. Consult each database individually for records of interest.
Another organization related to the Navy is the United States Merchant Marines. Although not officially a branch of the military, the Merchant Marines sacrificed and lost lives since the days of the Revolutionary War, carrying out their missions of supply and logistics during times of war. Here’s an excellent website on the history of the Merchant Marines.
United States Air Force. The modern day Air Force dates from September 18, 1947, when it was formed as part of the Security Act of 1947. The Air Force and aviation history began under the authority of the United States Army, starting on August 1, 1907 when it was organized under the name of the Aeronautical Division of the Signal Corps. Over the next 30 years the service changed names several times:
Aviation Section of the Signal Corps (1914-1918);
Division of Military Aeronautics (1918);
Air Service of the United States Army (1918-1926);
United States Army Air Corps (1926-1941);
United States Army Air Forces (1941-1947).
In that final year, it was separated as its own organization as it is known today. Click herefor a complete history of the Air Force from 1907 to the present.
Two excellent online sources covering the early history of the Air Force from World War I and World War II are located on Fold3:
United States Marines. This elite branch of the military began with the organization of the Continental Marines on November 19, 1775. The mission of the Marines initially comprised ship-to-ship fighting, security onboard naval vessels, and assistance in landing force operations. This mission would continue to evolve over the years. At the end of the Revolutionary War, the Marines were disbanded on October 4, 1783.
Along with the Navy, under the Naval Act of 1794, the United States Marines were again re-established and would serve faithfully in every major war period and in peacetime between conflicts. The Marines will forever remain true to their motto of “Semper Fidelis” or Always Faithful as they continue to live up to their long-running tradition of honor and service. Click here to watch an interesting and accurate history of the Marine Corps is viewable online on You Tube.
Coast Guard. The history of this seagoing service dates back to August 4, 1790. Established as the Revenue Cutter Marines under the direction of Alexander Hamilton, the name was changed in 1894 to the Revenue Cutter Service until 1915. That year, an Act of Congress was passed and signed into law by President Woodrow Wilson called the “Act to Create Coast Guard.” The United States Live Saving Service and Revenue Cutter Service came together. Later, in 1939, the United States Light House Service was added to form the modern day United States Coast Guard.
The complete history of the United States Coast Guard from 1790 is on the Historians Office. It includes information about each of the separate organizations that came together to form the Coast Guard at. Ancestry.com has a collection of casualties of the Navy, Marines, and Coast Guard. Very few additional online sources are available online for this branch of the service. Researchers must access these documents and records onsite at the National Archives in Washington, DC.
Military Minutes Case Study
By Michael Strauss
Subject: Russell Strauss
Died: December 27, 1981-Jonestown, PA
Son of Harry B. Strauss & Agnes S. (Gerhart) Strauss
Over the last 30 plus years doing genealogy research, I’ve discovered that nearly all of my family members who served in the military were in the United States Army. But I have been occasionally surprised to find relatives who served in other branches of the military.
On the paternal family several years ago one of my cousins gave me a box of photographs. One of the images was marked Russell G. Strauss. He wore the uniform of the United States Navy during World War II. I recognized his name and knew that he was my grandfather’s first cousin. I was 16 years old when he died and didn’t know him very well.
His uniform indicated that he was a third class petty officer in the Navy during the war. I looked further at his uniform and noticed a diamond shaped “S” as part of the insignia. This military occupation indicated that he was a specialist that would require further research. I spoke with a couple of my older family members who knew Russell. All of my family interviewed said that he in the military police (M.P.) during the war. With additional research, I discovered that his insignia was that of the Shore Patrol. When I compared what my family said to me and his uniform told me the information matched very closely.
I found on Ancestry his application for compensation from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in 1950 when he served in the Shore Patrol in Norfolk, Virginia as part of his military duty (inserted below). Putting information from his photograph together with what my family members shared with me helped answer questions I had regarding of my relatives.
Lisa Louise Cooke, Host and Producer
Sunny Morton, Editor
Vienna Thomas, Associate Producer
Hannah Fullerton, Production Assistant
Lacey Cooke, Service Manager
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