Family history can be found in many places. We turn to steadfast repositories such as libraries, archives and historical societies. And these days we can also search online at free genealogy websites like FamilySearch, and subscription websites like MyHeritage and Ancestry. All have something unique to offer.
Most importantly, we start our search at home, talking to our oldest relatives and combing through old family papers. We then turn our attention to the family photo albums and scrapbook on the bookshelf, and old home movies if we are lucky enough to have them.
The great news is that the closets in your home are not the only place where you can potentially find old film footage pertaining to your family’s past. The largest online video repository in the world is YouTube (which is owned by Google), and it is the perfect place to look for film. That’s why I’m so excited to share some of my YouTube search strategies from my new book The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox, 3rd Edition. These strategies can help you find old home movies (from your family or someone else’s family that came in contact with your family), news and newsreel films, documentaries, amateur and professional film footage, and countless other subjects that can shed more light on your family’s history.
How to Find Family History on YouTube in 5 Steps
Does finding your family history on YouTube sound unlikely? Believe me, it’s not. YouTube is a treasure trove if you know how to search it. Here are 5 steps from my Google Search Methodology for Genealogy and how to apply them specifically to YouTube.
Step #1. Create a Search Plan
Just like genealogy research, successful Googling, even on YouTube, requires a plan. Rather than searching willy-nilly, take a few moments to determine what it is you hope to find. Having a search plan will save you a lot of time and frustration!
The key to a good research question and plan is to be specific. This means that instead of just searching for family names or places, you have a specific event, place, and / or time frame in mind.
Below is a great example of searching with a specific plan in mind that I received from one of my Genealogy Gems Podcast listeners a while back. I have bolded the keywords that she incorporated into her YouTube search.
From Carol K.:
“I really enjoyed (Genealogy Gems) Podcast (episode) #223, particularly the segment with David Haas MD. (Editor’s note: that episode covers Dr. Haas’ vast collection of old home movies and his quest to upload them all to YouTube.)
I had tried researching YouTube for something about my family, including where they settled in Connecticut. I had not come up with much when I decide to search my dad’s ship, The USS Tuscaloosa (Image 1).
My dad, Mario Ponte, served in the Navy from 1936-1939 (Image 2).
I knew he had been on a Goodwill South American Cruise in 1939 (Image 3) as he talked about it often and I even have the Cruise Book from that voyage.
Well, I’ll be if I didn’t find this story and film (on YouTube).
(Here’s the video’s description:)
On a goodwill tour of South America in 1939, three US cruisers found little goodwill in this angry sea. Newsreel cameras aboard the USS San Francisco recorded this epic struggle of the ships which included the USS Quincy and USS Tuscaloosa.
I don’t recall my father ever mentioning this to me, but my husband said he had heard the story. I only wish my dad were here to share this memory with me. At least, I have been able to share this treacherous event with many in my family.
When you see the tossing, turning and huge waves in the video, I feel they were lucky to have survived. Just think, if they hadn’t, I wouldn’t be here to tell this story today.
Thanks Lisa and David. I’m now convinced that YouTube can be used for genealogy and to add to our stories.”
Carol’s fascinating success can be directly tied to the fact that she developed a research plan focused on specific information.
2. Craft Your YouTube Search Query
As you can see, Carol didn’t just search YouTube for her Dad’s name. In fact, unless your ancestor was famous in some way, that is likely not a strategy that will pay off.
Instead, she assembled the pertinent information and used that in her query. Here are the keywords and phrases I pulled from her email:
- The USS Tuscaloosa
- Goodwill South American Cruise in 1939
- Mario Ponte
- Navy from 1936-1939
I included her dad’s name in this list because it never hurts to run your ancestor’s name through a search just in case something pops up. You never know what might be on YouTube. For example, perhaps a childhood friend has uploaded an old home movie to YouTube and named him as being in the movie too!
When conducting your initial YouTube search, include all the important information. If the results are unsatisfactory, you can always remove or add search terms. Since we can’t be sure what if anything is on YouTube pertaining to our research subject, we have to be flexible, and that means expecting to run several variations of our search. We’ll talk more about that in step 3.
In Carol’s case, her research plan was focused on finding a video pertaining to the U.S.S. Tuscaloosa’s Goodwill cruise that her father participated in. She could start with a search such as:
USS Tuscaloosa Goodwill South American Cruise in 1939
The results for this search query are excellent and include the video that Carol found:
3. Analyze Your YouTube Search Results
Even though these results successfully delivered the video that satisfied our research plan, we would miss tremendous opportunity if we didn’t take a few extra moments to further analyze the results. You never know what else might be out there!
Here are just a few of the things you should be looking for when reviewing your YouTube results:
LOOK FOR: Should I be more specific in my search query?
Look at our search results (Image 4 above). What stands out to me is that there appear to be many different videos on YouTube about war time ships and cruisers. This is great for family historians, but it means that there are more results to look through than we might have expected.
As you have probably experienced in the past, not all the words in our search query are included in every search result we receive. There is a way to quickly and easily find only videos that specifically mention the words and phrases we want to find. By putting quotation marks around “U.S.S. Tuscaloosa” we can tell YouTube to only give us videos that mention that exact phrase.
When Google searching (and Google is the search engine under the hood of YouTube), quotation marks function as a search operator. They tell Google specific instructions about what to do with our word or phrase. In this case, they tell Google that the phrase is mandatory, and must appear exactly as typed and spelled. The one exception is the periods in U.S.S. Generally speaking, Google disregards punctuation, so it ignores the periods. It doesn’t matter whether you include them or not.
It is important to note that operators don’t always work as consistently in YouTube as they do in regular searches at Google.com. That being said, it’s great to have a variety of tools that we can use to improve our searches, and they are definitely worth a try. My book includes a wide range of additional search operators and how to use them.
Running a second search on “USS Tuscaloosa” opens many new video opportunities (Image 5):
This search not only includes the 1939 tour, but also other videos of the ship that may also be applicable to the family’s history. As you can see, sometimes less words in a search is more!
LOOK FOR: What do the unwanted video results have in common?
Sometimes you may notice that you are receiving many results that are not a good match for what you are looking for. When this happens, take a look at your results and try to come up with words that are associated with the unwanted videos, and have no relevance to your goal.
Image 6 (below) is an example of search results in YouTube for the following query:
USS Tuscaloosa Goodwill Cruise in 1939
While the results page includes a few good matches, it also includes current videos about quarantines on ships which is a viral topic at the time of this writing. Since these are not applicable to our search plan, we will want to eliminate them, and we will do that in Step 4.
4. Improve Upon Your YouTube Search Results
In a case like the one above (Image 6) where you are receiving several video results not applicable to your research goal, you can try literally subtract the unwanted words that you identified in Step 3 from your search. In most cases, this should remove the videos that contain those words in their title or description.
To do this, use the minus sign (-) search operator in conjunction with the word. Here’s an example of how we can do that with this search:
USS Tuscaloosa Goodwill Cruise in 1939 -quarantine
This search will remove the results that mention quarantine.
You can subtract multiple words from your query if you wish. Each word should have a minus sign touching it, and there should be a space between each subtracted word as in this example:
USS Tuscaloosa Goodwill Cruise in 1939 -quarantine -princess -coronavirus
Googling, whether at YouTube, Google.com or any of the other free Google tools, is an art form, not a black and white science. We need to try variations in order to learn from what works and what doesn’t. To reach our goals, we need to try adding in more of what we want, and removing what we don’t want. In this case I would also try adding to my query that that cruise was in South America, and that the phrase USS Tuscaloosa is mandatory. Here’s what that search query would look like:
“USS Tuscaloosa” Goodwill South American Cruise in 1939 -quarantine
Remember, we’re not going for perfect results, we’re mining all the different “veins” in the YouTube gold mine by running multiple versions of the same basic query. Feel free to experiment with mixing and matching keywords and operators. The results may be worth it!
Learn more about Google Search operators in my video:GOOGLE GURU TIP:
Conduct each variation of your search in a new browser tab. This allows you to compare the results side-by-side while retaining each query, making it easy to return to the queries that are performing the best.
You can also potentially improve upon your YouTube search results by using the Tools button to reveal the secondary filter menu. (Image 7)
These filters won’t prove useful in every case, but they do offer some handy options for narrowing the scope of your search.
5. Capitalize on Your Results
When you find a video that meets your research goals, there’s a good chance that the person or company that uploaded and published the video (publishers are called “Creators” by YouTube) may have more videos on that subject. Here’s a quick and easy way to find out.
On the video page, you will see the name of the Creator right below the video in the left corner. (Image 9)
Click the YouTube Creator’s name. This will take you to their YouTube channel. Every Creator who has published a video has a YouTube channel. It’s sort of like their own home page for their videos. There you will be able to see and search any additional videos they have published. Click Videos to see all their videos. (Image 10)
If the channel has a lot of videos, click Playlists in the channel’s menu to see how they are grouped by topic. You can also search the channel for keywords and phrases by clicking the small magnifying glass icon on the far right end of the menu.
A Bright Future for Family History on YouTube
In Step 3 we analyzed the search results for Carol’s YouTube search. Let’s take another look at those results:
It’s interesting to note that in addition to the video that Carol found which was published 4 years ago, another video on this topic was published a year later.
It’s estimated that more than 500 hours of video is being uploaded to YouTube every minute. This is up from the 400 hours per minute announced in 2015 by YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki.
Among that vast storehouse of film footage I’ve found countless videos that have enhanced my family’s story. And readers just like you email me the gems they unearth. I love receiving these success stories. Thank you to Carol for sharing hers! If you make an exciting discovery using these strategies please share them in the Comments. It will inspire us all to continue our search.
The bottom line is that the potential for finding your family history on YouTube grows dramatically minute by minute, so don’t wait another minute!
The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox, 3rd Edition (book)
by Lisa Louise Cooke, print book available at the Genealogy Gems store here.
The Google Search Methodology for a New Decade (video class)
1 hour video class and downloadable handout, part of Genealogy Gems Premium Membership. Learn more or subscribe here.
About the Author: Lisa Louise Cooke
Lisa is the Producer and Host of the Genealogy Gems Podcast, an online genealogy audio show and app. She is the author of the books The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox, Mobile Genealogy, How to Find Your Family History in Newspapers, and the Google Earth for Genealogy video series, an international keynote speaker, and producer of the Family Tree Magazine Podcast.
When it comes to digitized newspapers on genealogy websites, Findmypast is a clear headliner. The site already hosts millions of U.S., British, and Irish newspaper pages–and their British collection is about to DOUBLE. Extra, extra, read all about it!
Here at Genealogy Gems, we regularly compare features of leading genealogy websites, or as we refer to them, the “Genealogy Giants:” Ancestry.com, FamilySearch, Findmypast and MyHeritage. Today’s topic: digitized newspapers.
It may surprise you to hear that digitized historical newspapers aren’t a big part of the collections at all four giant genealogy websites. In fact, only one site–Findmypast–offers access to millions of exclusive British and Irish newspaper pages and a major U.S. newspaper database (which is usually just available at libraries).
Why mention it now? Because a good thing just got better: Findmypast plans to double its British newspaper content over the next two years.
Digitized Newspaper Treasures at Findmypast.com
Findmypast’s enormous genealogy collections focus on the countries of England, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales. Findmypast and The British Library have been working together for several years on The British Newspaper Archive, now home to more than 22.5 million newspaper pages dating from the 1700s. But what many people might not realize is that these same newspaper pages are also available to Findmypast subscribers.
You can search newspaper pages on Findmypast by name (first and last) and by other keywords, such as an occupation, street address, event or another word that might be associated with your family in newspaper articles. You can narrow the date range of papers searched and even target specific newspapers:
And it gets better. Findmypast just announced that over the next two years, it will nearly double its digitized newspaper collections! It is scanning over 12 million pages from the largest private newspaper collection in the UK: the Trinity Mirror archives. Over 150 local papers from across the U.K. are included. These pages have never been made available online, but will be on both The British Newspaper Archive and Findmypast. The project is already underway and moving along rapidly: up to 100,000 pages per week.
According to a press release, “The program builds on an existing partnership that has already resulted in the digitization and online publication of upwards of 160 Trinity Mirror titles, including significant coverage of both World Wars. Published online for the very first time, these war-time publications also included the Archive’s first national titles, The Daily Mirror and The Daily Herald.”
TIP: If you are interested in accessing British newspapers, but not needing the full range of genealogy resources offered at Findmypast, consider purchasing PayAsYouGo credits from Findmypast. You can purchase 60-900 at a time and “spend” them to view individual search results, including newspapers. You can also subscribe separately to The British Newspaper Archive.
More Digitized Newspapers on Genealogy Websites
Ancestry.com: This giant site does offer some digitized newspaper content, including images connected to indexed names in Historical [U.S.] Newspapers, Birth, Marriage, & Death Announcements, 1851-2003, Australia’s New South Wales Government Gazettes, 1853-1899 and Canada’s Ottawa Journal (Birth, Marriage and Death Notices), 1885-1980. But Ancestry.com’s biggest newspaper collections are mostly indexed obituaries (not images of the actual newspaper pages). Ancestry.com subscribers who want major access to digitized newspapers should consider upping their subscription to “All Access,” which includes Basic access to Newspapers.com.
FamilySearch: Millions of indexed obituaries are searchable by name on its free website, but it doesn’t generally offer any digitized newspaper pages. Of its billion+ historical record images, FamilySearch prioritizes more “core” genealogical records, such as vital records, censuses, and passenger lists.
MyHeritage.com: This site used to have access to NewspaperARCHIVE, the same U.S. newspaper database Findmypast currently offers, but it doesn’t now. It’s got new collections of Ohio (4.5 million pages from 88 sources) and New York (1.9 million pages from 56 sources) newspapers and access to the Jewish Chronicle [England]. But the bulk of its newspaper search results come from searching two other websites: Chronicling America and Trove, run by the national libraries of the United States and Australia, respectively. While it’s convenient to search them from MyHeritage if you are already using it, it’s not a reason to subscribe, as you can use those sites for free.
More Inside Tips on the Genealogy Giants
Genealogy Gems is your home for ongoing coverage and insight into the four ‘genealogy giants’ websites. Click here to learn more and to watch the RootsTech 2017 world premiere of my popular lecture that puts these big sites head-to-head. Genealogy Gems has published my ultimate quick reference guide, “Genealogy Giants: Comparing the 4 Major Websites.” It distills that hour-long lecture (and I was talking fast!) into a concise, easy-to-read format that will help you know which websites are best for you to use right now.
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 cost to you). Thank you for supporting the free Genealogy Gems podcast and blog!
If one of your ancestors served in the United States Merchant Marine, then you’ll be especially interested in the conversation that our recent blog post on the topic of the Merchant Marine has generated about the records that may be available for your genealogy research.
The article was on how to find military service records. Military Minutes contributor Michael Strauss made this comment about the United States Merchant Marine:
“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.”
A reader named Steve endorsed that brief remark in the article’s comments section, and expressed a desire to hear more on the Merchant Marine. He says:
“Although not considered to be a military arm of the United States, the Merchant Marines were an integral part of the war efforts in WWI and WWII and should be considered in genealogy. Many lives were lost in service of USA.”
Merchant Marine in Newspapers and Death Records
In a beautiful expression of genealogy serendipity, a Genealogy Gems Premium Podcast listener has written in with a specific question about researching relatives in the Merchant Marine. Vicki writes:
“I have a distant relative who was a Merchant Marine during WWII. Raymond Ralph Burkholder was a Merchant Marine Able Seaman killed when his ship the Standard Oil tanker W. L. Steed was torpedoed by a German sub off New Jersey Feb. 2, 1942. Following is a newspaper article about the incident:”
Vicki sent the following article from the Lebanon Daily News, Thursday, February 12, 1942:
NAZI SUBS BOOST TOLL OF SHIPS SUNK TO 25
New York, Today – (AP) The toll of ships officially announced as sunk or attacked off the United States and Canada thus far in the war stood today at 25, after the navy reported the 6,182-ton Standard Oil tanker W. L. Steed was sent to the bottom by an enemy submarine off New Jersey Feb. 2.
The announcement of the W. L. Steed’s fate was made yesterday with the arrival of three survivors, who had been picked up semi-conscious after drifting for two icy days in an open boat. No word has come from the remainder of the crew of 38 as three of the tanker’s four lifeboats still are missing.
A Williamsport, Pa., man was listed as a member of the crew. He is Raymond R. Burkholder, able seaman.
Able-bodied seaman Louis Bartz, 38, of Philadelphia, and Ralph Mazzucco, 23, and Joaquim R. Vrea, 39, both of New York, said the submarine torpedoed the tanker at 12:45 p. m. and that after the crew got off in lifeboats the enemy craft fired 17 shells into the sinking ship.
Last night the third naval district reported that a South American steamship sighted a lifeboat containing a number of bodies off the Atlantic coast yesterday, but was forced to flee when a submarine popped up in the vicinity.”
Vicki’s question is this: Where do you think I would look for a death certificate? New Jersey?
Before we jump into answering that questions, let’s learn more about Merchant Marines so we better understand where to search.
About the U.S. Merchant Marines
The Merchant Marine actually served in a military capacity before the U.S. Navy OR the Coast Guard ever existed.
According to the website, American Merchant Marine at War, the Merchant Marine can trace its history to 1775, when “a party of Maine mariners, armed with pitchforks and axes, inspired by the news of the recent victory at Lexington, Massachusetts, used an unarmed lumber schooner to surprise and capture a fully armed British warship, HMS Margaretta, off the coast of Machias, Maine. The men used the captured guns and ammunition from the ship to bring in additional British ships as prizes. American privateers soon disrupted British shipping all along the Atlantic coast.”
The Revenue Cutter Service, the forerunner of the Coast Guard, wasn’t founded until 15 years later, in 1790, to prevent smuggling.
There was a Continental Navy in 1775, but it ended with the Revolutionary War. The US Navy didn’t come into being until 1797.
The Merchant Marine, as an umbrella term, refers to a body of civilian mariners and government-owned merchant vessels: those who typically run commercial shipping in and out of the country. During wartime, merchant mariners can be called on by the Navy for military transport.
And that’s what happened during World War II. Our Military Minutes contributor, Michael Strauss, says that “On February 28, 1942 President Franklin D. Roosevelt authorized the transfer (Under Executive Order #9083) of all maritime agencies to the United States Coast Guard. This order was a redistribution of maritime functions and included the United States Merchant Marine.”
Where to Look First for Merchant Marine Information
According to the American Merchant Marine at War website, over 1500 merchant ships were sunk during the War, and hundreds of others were damaged by enemy attacks and mines. That brings us to Vicki’s question about her relative.
As I discuss in my Premium eLearning video class Google Books: The Tool I Use Every Day, Google Books is a treasure trove of genealogical information.
A search of Standard Oil tanker W. L. Steed “Burkholder” in Google Books leads to the book Ships of the Esso Fleet in World War II (Standard Oil Company, 1946).
This book is an invaluable resource that actually provides a detailed, eyewitness account of Raymond Ralph Burkholder’s final acts on the ship before having to abandon it. It even details his last torturous hours in the lifeboat before he became delirious and died, only hours before the other survivors were rescued!
In Search of Raymond Burkholder’s Death Record
Here’s where I put my head together with Michael. I suggested checking the death certificates of the county of his last residence, which may now be held at the state level. He liked that idea and said it’s worth the effort.
From what I’ve learned, the Master of the vessel would have reported the deaths of his crew to the vessel owners, who would have reported to the Coast Guard, and I asked Michael whether following Coast Guard records through the International Organization of Masters, Mates & Pilots would be a good route to a death record for Raymond.
He said that instead, he would go directly to the Records of the Merchant Marines. Michael writes that these records during World War II “can be somewhat confusing, but not impossible to search. The records for your sailor during the war can be located at several different locations.”
Even if you don’t have relatives who served in the Merchant Marine, keep reading because you may get some ideas about records to discover for other family members who may have served in the military in other capacities.
6 Places to Look for Merchant Marine Records for WWII:
Where can you find Merchant Marine records for World War II? Here are six excellent places to look.
#1: Official Military Personnel Files
Official Military Personnel Files (known as OMPFs) are maintained by the National Personnel Record Center in St. Louis, MO. Since these records are considered Archival 62 years after the date of separation, these are open for Merchant Mariners and others who served during World War II who were discharged by the end of the war. Click here to learn more about ordering OMPFs.
Michael adds this note:
“You can also access the files by mailing in (Standard Form #180, downloadable here), and fill in the information requested about your Mariner. Note that the service record is likely to be under the heading of the United States Coast Guard when filling out the form—check that box. Don’t send any money; the Archives will notify you if the file is located.”
#2: Individual Deceased Personnel Files
If your Merchant Mariner was killed during World War II, request the Individual Deceased Personnel File (IDPF). This file is separate from the OMPF file and is also at the National Personnel Record Center.
Michael says, “These files are a wealth of genealogical information about veterans who died during World War II and other war periods. Contact the Archives to request this file. If the file is not in their custody, it is possible it is still in the hands of the Army Human Resource Command located at Ft. Knox, KY. The Archives will let you know the exact location.”
#3: National Maritime Center in Martinsburg, WV
#4: National Archives Collections on Merchant Mariners
You will find Merchant Mariners collections at the National Archives cataloged under the records of the United States Coast Guard, Record Group 26.
This collection has 8 boxes of material containing details on Merchant Mariners killed, wounded, and those missing in action as a result of combat during World War II. Other records pertain to medals and other citations, court martials, and miscellaneous records.
#5: Ship Log Books
If you know the name of the vessel that the Merchant Mariner served on, then try a search for the logbooks.
Logs can name assignments for crew members, among other log entries of the day to day activities of the ship. The National Archives website has finding aids for log books.
A Google search for NARA U.S. merchant seaman finds several excellent National Archives resource pages there, including some for Ship’s Logs.
#6: Officer Applications
United States Merchant Marine applications for the licensing of Officers, 1914-1949 is available on Ancestry.com. This collection covers both World Wars. These document applicants who applied to be commissioned officers with the Merchant Marines, including men designated as Masters, Pilots, Engineers, or Vessel Operators.
Related collection: Lists of Merchant Seamen Lost in WWI, 1914-1919.
Crossing the Bar
During my research of the U.S. Merchant Marine for this article, I came across the phrase, “crossing the bar.” You may have heard this yourself. It refers to the death of a mariner.
The history behind this phrase: a sandbar can be found at the entrance of many rivers and bays, and crossing the bar has come to mean leaving the safety of a harbor for the unknown.
I wish all of you in search of your ancestors who crossed the bar good fortune in your genealogical pursuit.
Podcast Episode Featuring Merchant Marine Records
You can hear more about Merchant Marine records in Genealogy Gems Premium Podcast Episode #159. (Subscription required.)
Show Notes: Whether you want to visit the village where your ancestor was born on your next vacation, or you just want to find their records, you’ll need to know the exact place name and location. Professional genealogist Rich Venezia of Rich Roots Genealogy joins me in this video to help us pin down those ancestral places.
Watch the Video Premiere with Live Chat
Ancestral Villages: Why near enough isn’t good enough.
Lisa: This is such an important topic; we’ve got to know where people came from to be able to track them down. I was just reading your article. It’s called Hometown Heroes, and the September / October issue of Family Tree Magazine. In it, you said something really interesting right off the bat, which was you said that “near enough isn’t good enough.” What are you trying to help people understand when you say that?
Rich: When we start with our research, we’re often starting with censuses especially, right? Those are often kind of the backbone of a lot of American research. And so, if people are moving around a lot, or if you aren’t exactly sure where they lived, because of the decennial census, you might be able to track them around and say, for example, they were living in California. Then you could figure out what they were first in Los Angeles, and then we went to San Francisco ,or whatever. But a lot of other countries, especially Western and Eastern European nations, don’t have similar types of these censuses, or at least not that are available to us. And so, if we only know, let’s say, the state where they’re from, or the province or region in a different country, it’s often really difficult to figure out where the records are, because a lot of times the records are going to be held at a really local level. So, unless you know that exact town or village, more often than not, you’re going to have a lot of difficulty getting any records and moving your research further back in the old country, because you really need to pinpoint that exact location.
Lisa: That’s a great point. Sometimes a record says, Warsaw, but they weren’t really in Warsaw, they were just really close by. Is that fairly common?
Rich: Yeah, precisely. My parents, I got to tell them that we know the exact Italian villages where their grandparents were all from. They always said Naples, right, or they heard Naples as part of their family story, but none of them are from Naples. They’re all from 45 minutes or an hour and a half outside of Naples. But I think that happens pretty frequently in the type of research that we’re doing.
Even today, when you meet people around the world or across the country, they’ll probably won’t often say the suburb of New York or Philly or DC, where they’re from. They will usually just say the city that’s close by. So, I think that kind of pervades today. Remember that when you see big cities listed on a death record or something like that, you might need to dig a little further to ascertain whether it was indeed that city or if it’s someplace that’s close by.
16 Records that can help you find your ancestor’s village
#1 Ship Manifests
Lisa: In the article, you give 16 sources that we can turn to, to try to pin this all down. Let’s start with number one, which I think is excellent, which is ship manifest.
Rich: Ship manifests are a great way to start when we’re looking for our ancestors who came over voluntarily and were interested in finding a better life for their family.
The problem with manifests is that they weren’t really used to regulate immigrants because of the laws in the United States until around the late 1800s. And so, because of that, there’s not always great detail on them. So, if you’re like me, and you have a lot of 20th century immigrant ancestors’ manifests, and they can often give you most all of the information that you need. But if you’re researching earlier ancestors, you might very well never find a manifest because there wasn’t one created, or the manifest is only going to give you a country of origin as opposed to any place more specific.
#2 Naturalization Records
Lisa: Number two is naturalization records. I love these. I just think they’re an amazing resource. Tell folks about what these are and what they might have for us.
Rich: Naturalization records are often kind of the next steppingstone when we’re researching immigrant ancestors. They relate to the process to become a US citizen, which was never a requirement, so you may find them for immigrant ancestors, but you may not.
Again, starting in the 20th century, we see really helpful information on these records, we generally get exact places of birthplace of last residence, which certainly isn’t always the same information, ship of arrival, and lots of other great details. But because of kind of the lack of regulation of these, or lack of federalization of these records, the forms weren’t standardized prior to the early 1900s. And as such, again, we run into this situation where every now and again, you’ll find a record from the 1850s that is super helpful and gives an exact place of origin and lots of other great genealogical details. But most pre-1906, naturalization records aren’t generally going to give you that exact location of origin that you really need to go across the pond.
Lisa: Sounds like we have to do a lot of collecting of all the different records. You never know which one’s going to have it. I know, in the case of my great grandparents, that was the only document that mentioned this little village of Kotten in East Prussia. Everything else was much more generic, and kind of the general area. So, you never know.
#3 Vital Records
Lisa: Number three is vital records. Birth marriage and death, right?
Rich: Right. These are a great way to, again, collect a lot of documentation and see maybe where, if you’ve got 10, or 15, or 20, to order, only one or two of them might have the precise information that you’re looking for. But if you’re researching a family that came over at different times, if you’ve got uncles and aunts and cousins, you want to get all of those records, because it might only wind up being the last nephew’s death record that lists the place of origin of his parents. And it sounds crazy, but I’ve seen it before, where you gather together all of this documentation, and if there’s 30 possible records to get, it’s the last one that has what you need. But that makes it really important not to skip out on all the records because it could be the only thing that mentions it, especially sometimes for earlier immigrants.
#4 Marriage Licenses
Lisa: Number four is marriage licenses and, and marriage records, which typically are somewhat older than some of the other available vital records, correct?
Rich: Yeah. I do very little colonial research, but I do know, there’s often colonial marriage bonds that people might be able to find. But also, in a lot of places, like in Pennsylvania, where I live, for instance, the marriage licenses in the county start in 1885. But the births and deaths for the state don’t start until 1906. So, you do often find that marriage records or marriage licenses might wind up predating some of the vital records.
In some cases, like for New York City, for instance, you may have the opportunity to get two or more different records related to the same event. There might have been an application for a marriage license, and then a marriage license or a marriage certificate or marriage return. And a lot of times, they’re not necessarily filed together. You might need to go digging around and looking to see if there are other records.
For instance, in New York City, they have a second set of marriage records. They have marriage licenses that people have to fill out prior to getting married, and the marriage certificate. And so between, I think it’s 1908 and 1937, there’s the secondary document that you definitely have to get because it asked for birthplace. It also asked for parents’ birthplace, and that information is not listed on the certificate. So, if you just stop with a certificate, you might be missing some great additional information.
Lisa: Hmm, reading between the lines, I’m really hearing you saying we’ve got to research the jurisdiction to know what they have, and what kind of records are created in their process because that varies a lot.
Rich: In Pennsylvania, we started marriage record keeping in the counties in 1835. And actually, for the first six years, there was a second copy that went to the state. So, if you happen to have people married in this small timeframe, you’ve got a county record. That’s the county record that was sent to the state which should be identical but might not be.
There’s also the potential for the religious record, right. And in some places they had city marriage returns as well, so there might be a possibility to find three or four or even five different records that all document the same event, but because the records are kept by different people, for different reasons, there might be a lot more information on some than on others.
Lisa: Every record has possibility. I love it!
#5 Church Records
Lisa: Church records can go much older too, right?
Rich: Right. Absolutely. And that’s especially for folks researching ancestors who were Catholic. The Catholics were, and are, notorious record keepers. And they’re often very interested in figuring out or noting down, where the parties had been baptized to make sure that people getting married were Catholic, or the people that were baptizing their children were Catholic.
We’ve also got great records that go quite far back like the Quakers. There’s the Friends records, many of which have been digitized by Ancestry. And of course, there are other religions that have their own records, many of which may have not yet been digitized, but which could certainly include the same type of information about origin or place of residents, place of baptisms, something like that. So, it’s always a good idea to make sure to look for those types of records as well.
#6 Draft Registration Cards
Lisa: For number six we go a new direction toward military records: World War One and World War Two draft registrations. This might be new to some people/ Tell us about these.
Rich: Sure. These are records that are generally relatively easily findable on the big websites, Ancestry, FamilySearch, Findmypast, MyHeritage, etc.
Oftentimes, they did ask for a place of birth. And so most immigrants who were here in the early to mid-1900s, that were born sometime from about the mid-1870s forward, should end up in these records, but that doesn’t mean that they served in the military. But if they were a man of draft age, they would have needed to fill one of these out.
Again, we run into this issue of the more recent, usually the more records are available. But in this case, it’s great, because you’re not just looking for people that wound up becoming citizens, you’re not just looking for people that may have been Catholic or whatever. All men that would have been between these certain ages on these dates, would or should have filled out these records. And so, these records may indeed, specify that exact location of origin.
#7 Military Serve and Pension Records
Lisa: Yes, they are one of the most comprehensive collections available. it really does cover everybody, which is terrific. But if they did serve, for number seven you have military service and pension records.
Rich: These are one of kind of the first ports of call that I would want to look into for an earlier immigrant ancestor.
We have pension records back to the Revolutionary War, and they move forward. The War of 1812, of course, was the big preserve the pensions project a few years ago, and they go up to the Civil War, and even a bit later, to the Spanish American War.
Folks whose immigrant ancestors served in the military, even if they came over 250 years ago, their pension records or their military service records could be really helpful. A lot of times, there’s things like affidavits that say, my name is John Smith, but I was born on this date, and this place, or it might even just say, the county in Ireland, for instance, or England. But even still, that’s obviously much more helpful than just Ireland or England.
There’s sometimes things like copies of family Bible records, or marriage records, because you have to remember that when we’re talking about pension records, we’re oftentimes talking about other people that would have been affected. So, if the ancestor died in the war, or shortly thereafter, their widow or their minor children could have been eligible for this pension. And so of course, they would need to prove the relationship. So, if the marriage occurred back in the old country, or something like that, there might be copies of these records, affidavits, some type of testimony that provides that which could all lead us to clues about that immigrants’ origins.
Lisa: Yes, it’s a record collection that could lead to many different kinds of records.
#8 Employment Records
Lisa: Number eight might be a little bit rarer, but gosh, if it exists, it would be well worth going after: employment records.
Rich: Yeah, these records sets definitely require a bit more advanced research. You definitely first need to figure out where your ancestor worked. But also, a lot of times, you need to do a lot of digging to determine where the records are, if they even exist, right? A lot of times we’re talking in archives, you’ve got to get boots on the ground, you’ve got to get your hands dirty with old records. But there are some really excellent employment records, some of which have been digitized. But we’re talking very few of these records have had been put online. Some railroad records have been, and so some of those have been put on some of the big websites. But a lot of times, we’ve got to figure out where the company was headquartered. Is it headquartered in a different place now than it was 100 years ago? Where might these records be, and also what type of records might exist.
There are some great repositories. The Historical Society of Pennsylvania, the Heinz History Center, in Pittsburgh, for instance, has a great selection of employment records for Pittsburgh based companies, Alcoa, Heinz, Westinghouse. If your ancestor happened to go to work at one of these places, these records have now been put in an archive. They’re much more accessible than if the archive still remains with the company which may be much more difficult to get your hands on.
You may find things like applications for employment, or even just information about employees. There could be information about place of origin, there might be newspaper, there might be periodicals, a lot of companies did newsletters. And so there might also be things about somebody that passed away, which can elicit information, or new hires, for instance. There’s all sorts of possibilities.
This is definitely not the type of thing that you search it, and you find it easily. These are often hard-won victories, but they can be some really great, really interesting records. And oftentimes, well, sometimes, they may include a photograph as well, which can be really special.
Lisa: I agree with you, they do pose more of a challenge. They are kind of a good back pocket item when nothing else is panning out. And I have to say, I had a grandfather and a great grandfather who worked for the railroad. I was amazed to see the Railroad Retirement Board records available through the Atlanta National Archives. I mean, it was well worth it!
#9 Social Security Applications
Lisa: Well, gosh, well, silly me! I forgot to ask rich about item number nine, and that record group is social security applications. In his article, he says, “Social Security began in the mid-1930s, and most everyone who was alive and eligible applied throughout the following decades. Social security applications known as the SS-5s, asked for both a place of birth (albeit, often just to country of birth) and parents’ names. The SS-5s are available for a fee through a Freedom of Information Act request to the Social Security Administration.
#10 Alien Registrations
Lisa: Next we have alien registrations. I haven’t done much research in this area. Tell us about this.
Rich: Alien registrations weren’t really very regulated until the latter part of the 1800s, early part of the 1900s. Prior to that point, there are only a handful of times where there might be some instances of alien registration. But we do see some during the Alien and Sedition Acts shortly after the country was formed in the late 1700s. Unfortunately, most of the alien registrations from that timeframe were destroyed.
There was a period of time where, if you were naturalizing, you had to provide a copy of that alien registration. There is a 12-year period in the 1800s where naturalization records will contain a copy of an alien registration and they can contain information about exact location when they arrived. All the members of the family, the minor children, what have you, and that’s just not what we often find on these early naturalization Records.
There are some instances where earlier you’ll find some alien registrations available. And then once we get to the 20th century, of course, we have many more available during World War One and World War Two. There were enemy aliens who had to register, there was a nationwide alien registration in 1940. There’s a couple of statewide alien registrations in Maine, Minnesota and North Carolina. So those records are also available.
Alien registrations are a bit more difficult to research and wrap your head around, because it really depends upon the location of where they were living. You have to determine if there was some type of alien registration happening at that time.
The only really comprehensive registration, in terms of alien registrations, would be the one that occurred right before World War Two in 1940 and continued on to 1944. If you do have ancestors that were 19th or 20th century immigrants, if they’re an alien and in the 1940 census, that’s a really good indicator that they should have an alien registration form.
Alien Registration records are currently only available through the USCIS genealogy program. It’s quite a hefty fee to order a record, but the hope is that eventually they’ll make their way to the National Archives. We don’t know when that will happen.
I have heard some instances where folks who emigrated in the 1860s, 1870s, that were old men, but had never naturalized, were found in this 1940 alien registration form, and it is the only American document that tells a location of origin. So, it’s really important and might very well be worth the money to make that request if you would expect them to show up in those records based upon their alien status in 1940. And if you’ve exhausted a lot of the other possibilities of places to look for their place of origin.
#11 County Histories
Lisa: Number 11 is one of my favorites, and I think probably one that I’ve had a lot of success with, perhaps you have as well, and that is county histories. Thankfully, those are much more readily available than alien registrations.
Rich: The great thing about county histories as you well know, was this big push at the centenary of the country to document the histories of the counties and the United States and the people who lived in them. And so, we will often again, see much earlier immigrant ancestors in these books. Even people that had had long since been deceased, because their children or grandchildren were noting how they were the founders of the county or what have you.
County histories are sometimes giving a mini biography of an immigrant. Whether it’s someone who’s alive, or has since deceased, it will often say, at least what part of their country of origin they came from. So, those can be really helpful in providing some of those details, as well as information about how long they’ve lived in the county, what they did, how they got to the county. There’s sometimes some really interesting stories in there, and sometimes photos as well. So, county histories are definitely a great option for folks whose immigrant ancestors were 18th and 19th century arrivals as opposed to more recent arrivals.
Lisa: And that leads right into number 12, which is newspapers. As I hear you talk about the stories we read in county histories, I think newspapers would be a great place to go and look for another take on those stories. Right?
Rich: Yeah, absolutely!
When we think of newspapers, we usually think of obituaries, which might list a place of origin. But of course, there’s all sorts of other things that might be listed.
If people were named as the executor in the will of their parents or sibling that was left back overseas, that might be listed in the paper, because there might have been some requirement about a legal notice about that. Or you might find steamship arrivals specifying so and so are coming to join Mr. And Mrs. Smith of this city. And they might even specify where they’re coming from more precisely than just that they arrived on the steamship. So, there’s a lot of great opportunities in newspapers.
And of course, more and more are getting digitized. A lot of states have their own digital newspapers, projects. And there’s some outside the box possibilities as well like ethnic newspapers, like religious newspapers, or company newspapers, or periodicals.
There arew all sorts of places that you might be able to find some really interesting newspapers about your ancestors, whether they tell you place of origin or not. Newspapers were great gossip rags, right? So, you can find some really interesting stuff in there about who’s fighting with who or, who’s playing at the church baseball game that weekend, or whatever. There’s all sorts of fun stuff that can be found in there.
Lisa: Yeah, I’ve even seen articles where they’re talking about folks gathering, I think it was at a Catholic church, and they were saying they all knew each other back in County Mayo, you know. It wasn’t the point of the article, but they mentioned it.
Rich: You never know when those types of little things are going to come up. I just can’t over overstate their importance. They can have so much utility. And, as more time goes on, more and more are being digitized. So, you know, if you were on the big newspaper websites a while back, look, again, in six months, look again in 18 months, because there’s just so many resources that are being added. And, and so many small towns, they have their own little weekly newspaper or whatever. And those are really where you want to go if your ancestors live somewhere rural. That’s where you’re going to find the really interesting articles, and also the articles that might be more detailed, which could give you things like place of origin or other genealogical details that you’re missing.
Lisa: Yeah, that is excellent advice about going back and revisiting. In fact, some of the websites even now have a way to alert yourself. They’ll message you if they upload something that matches something you searched in the past. I keep finding new things that weren’t there two years ago.
Resource: Watch Reconstructing Ancestors’ Lives with Newspapers
#13 Cemetery Records
Lisa: Okay, we’ve covered so many great resources. And we’ve got four left and you never know which one is going to be the goldmine. Tell us about #13, cemetery records. Tombstones?
Rich: We think of tombstones as the first place to look. I’ll often find, especially with Irish immigrants, their descendants love to place on the tombstones where their families were originally from.
There could be other records as well in the cemetery. They might be dusty books in the basement. You might have to ask real nicely or bring some chocolate or send a check to get access to them. But you never know what type of information you’re going to find in there. And even if it doesn’t give you the exact location of origin, it might be helpful to help you determine family relationships.
If you now have more people to research, and you know that they’re all related, there may be some records that relate to the other people that are in the plot that can give you the type of information that you’re looking for. So of course, we want to start with tombstones.
There could certainly be records at the cemetery office as well. Sometimes records have been digitized, so check with the local genealogical or historical society. We could be talking about a ton of other records that might possibly be available for your cemetery of interest as well.
Lisa: Great point, so many different options there.
#14 Probate Files
Lisa: Speaking of death, #14 is probate files in court records.
Rich: A lot of the earlier probate files pre 1900s for most counties in the United States have been digitized. They’re relatively well indexed.0
When we think about probate files, it often isn’t going to say this person born in this place died on this day. But there might be, perhaps lands that they had a share of back in the old country. Or it could be that, along the way, maybe they came from Europe through Canada, and they had some property in Canada, which could be a helpful piece of information for you to have.
It also might be that if they were a single person or had no family, it could be that the people that needed to be notified were back in the old country. So, you sometimes will find copies of correspondence sent through the consulate back in the old country, notifying the brother that they needed to provide X information if they had a share in this, and how is it going to be handled. And so, both in US consular records that you find at the National Archives or College Park, but also in probate files that I’ve just seen in different county courthouses, you’ll sometimes see these affidavits in other languages noting siblings or other people that needed to somehow be involved in the process.
Now, of course, there are not going to be many or even a lot of these files, but you never know. So, you definitely want to look. And this is, again, where we employ the FAN principle where, if it’s one of five brothers, you’ve got to look at all the siblings.
Lisa: That’s the good news about a location. Siblings may not share the same birth date, but they might all share the same birth location. So, it gives us more people to work on.
#15 Fraternal Organization Records
Lisa: #15 is fraternal organization records. And there’s a lot of different fraternal organizations, aren’t there?
Rich: Yes. Oftentimes, you’ll find these types of records in archives. Very few of these have made their way online. There’s a couple of really good resources available on Ancestry. For instance, they’ve got the Massachusetts Masons, they’ve got the Order Sons of Italy and America for a couple of different states, though, not all of the states. And there’s a handful of other ones that have made their way online.
However, with a lot of these types of records, we’re going to be again, looking for in regional archives and regional repositories. The Historical Society of Pennsylvania has tons of these types of records from all over the country, not just from Pennsylvania. And I’m lucky enough that it’s just around the corner from me so I can go hop over and do some research there anytime. But that’s because they subsumed the collections of the Balch Institute for ethnic studies, which was at Temple University. And so, they have all of these types of ethnic-related fraternal organization records that had been housed at the Balch. Those records made their way over to HSP. And so, there’s a couple of different archives like this around the country. There’s also the Immigrant History Research Center and Archive at the University of Minnesota. They’ve got tons of fraternal organizational records from all over the country.
Again, this is not beginner research. It’s not necessarily easy research. You first have got to figure out if your ancestor was a member of an organization. Look at obituaries, things like that, to see. If so, where are the records, and are the records for the different lodges in different places. You might need to do quite a bit of calling around to figure that out.
Lisa: You’ve been leading us through some of the low-hanging fruit some of the tougher to get records, and so many of them kind of dovetail into each other and help us lead through a path from one record to the next until we get to the one that has it.
Lisa: This all leads us to your final item here in your article. Number 16 is Neighbors. I don’t think you’re saying I need to go next door, right?!
Rich: You never know, maybe your neighbors can be helpful! Maybe they’re also a genealogist. Maybe they’re a long-lost cousin who knows. Funny story: a few years ago, before I became a genealogist I wound up working with a distant cousin of mine and she was my desk neighbor. So, it could be that your neighbors have what you need! (laughs)
What I’m talking about is the fact that, since the beginning of the country, America has been populated by chain migration. One individual comes from a small town or village, they write back home, their brother comes, then their parents come, then the cousins come and other people from the village come It’s been that way since the 1600s and continues to be that way today because of the need for community, and also people that speak your language. It helps with the ability to find a job more easily, what have you.
You’ll find people that are coming from the same village living in the same neighborhood are oftentimes in the same apartment building. If you’re researching your family, and you have looked at all the documents, and you’ve done all the things, and you can’t figure it out, but they’re living at an address like my Italian grandpa’s at 500, Adams Street in Hoboken, you may find that everybody who lived there was from the same village, or at least from the same area.
When they came to the US, they lived in the same place that allowed them to get jobs more easily, connect with employment opportunities, connect with religious organizations. And so, you also want to look at the people that they’re living with. Who are the people in their apartment block? Who are the people that live next door? Who are the people that are witnessing their deeds that are the executing their wills? Who are the witnesses to their marriage. All these kinds of things could be really helpful.
Of course, that increases the amount of research you have to do 100-fold. But if what you’re really looking for is to figure out exactly location of origin in the old country, and especially if we’re talking earlier immigrants, it can be worth it. It was the same in the 1920s, as it was in the in the 1780s.
You definitely want to branch out and research the folks that your immigrant ancestors surrounded themselves with, whether it’s physical neighbors, or people that continually show up on their documents, as informants as witnesses, as co-signers, as bond guarantors, all of those kinds of things, because those people could very well have come from the same place.
Lisa: Well, when we’re looking at a census record for example and we see Italy, Italy, Italy, listed and they’re all in apartments, then we just grab your article, and we run them through the 16 record sources again, and see if we can at least find an origin for them, which then would at least give us a clue of a place to look.
These are all terrific ideas, and I really recommend that everybody get the Family Tree Magazine September / October 2022 issue and check out your Hometown Heroes article. Thank you so much for helping us today, Rich.
Rich: Thanks for having me. I always appreciate the opportunity to talk to you and to write for Family Tree Magazine. I hope that y’all got some good ideas and I wish you the best of luck in in figuring out where your folks were from and maybe eventually getting to go visit as well.
Lisa: Oh, yes, that’d be even better, wouldn’t it? Thank you so much.
Rich: Thank you