Have you found all the school records there are to be had for your ancestors? Most of us haven’t, and the chances are very good that there are still some gems out there waiting to be found. Here are ten solid strategies that will help you track them down for your genealogy research.
Watch episode 82 below.
Because the movement for compulsory public education didn’t begin until the 1920s, many people assume that there few records to be had for genealogical purposes prior to that time. The reality couldn’t be further from the truth. Many children attended school much earlier.
In fact, it may be surprising to learn that the first public school in what is now the United States opened in the 17th century. On April 23, 1635, the first public school was established in Boston, Massachusetts.
Illustration of the Boston Latin School by Ebenezer Thayer, courtesy of Wikimedia
It was a boys-only public secondary school called the Boston Latin School, and it was led by schoolmaster Philemon Pormont, a Puritan settler. The school was strictly for college preparation, and produced well-known graduates including John Hancock and Samuel Adams. It’s most famous dropout? Benjamin Franklin! The school is still in operation today, though in a different location.
Thousands of schools serving millions of students have been established in the U.S. since the inception of the Boston Latin School. (According to 2015-16 data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) there are 132,853 K-12 schools in the U.S.) This means that the chances of there being school records for your ancestors is great indeed!
10 Solid Strategies for Finding School Records for Genealogy
Here are 10 proven ways to find your ancestors’ awkward yearbook photos, sports triumphs, and much, much more.
1. Establish a Timeline of your Ancestor’s Education
Check your genealogy software database to figure out when your ancestor would have attended high school or college. Keep in mind, as recently as the 1960s, children did not go to Kindergarten but may have started school at about 6 years old and beginning in First Grade.
To keep my search organized, I decided to create a simple worksheet form in a Word document. It allows me to identify the right time frames, locations, and other pertinent information for my search, and record my progress along the way.
2. Consult Family Papers and Books for School Records
Go through old family papers and books looking for things like:
senior calling cards,
high school autograph books,
journals and diaries,
fraternity or sorority memorabilia,
yearbooks and more.
When I dug through boxes and my grandmother’s cedar chest I found several records like…
a Report Card:
My grandmother’s brother’s 6th grade report card found among family papers.
Grandma’s class picture from the 7th grade in 1925, Chowchilla, California. She is in the back row on the far right, and her brother is the boy in the center of the back row:
Grandma (back row, far right) with her 7th grade class.
And Grandma’s senior portrait, 1930:
Grandma’s senior portrait from 1930
3. Google for Academic Family History
From the professional website of the state archives to the family history site cobbled together by a cousin you’ve never met, the potential for finding school records on the vast expanse of the internet is limitless! Google is the tool to help you locate websites that include school-related records with lightning speed.
Since I’m not sure which school my grandmother attended, I started off my search for my grandmother’s school with a simple query for the history of schools in the county where she lived as a child:
Google search for the history of school’s in the county
I was pleasantly surprised at the first search result. It’s a newspaper article from the Madera Tribune literally outlining the history of how the schools evolved in the county! It details such things as the driving forces behind where schools were located, when they were founded, and which ones at the time of the article were no longer in existence.
History of Madera Schools Outlined in the Madera Tribune, September 1955.
Next, I focused my attention on the grade school listed on Grandma’s brother’s 6th grade report card that I discovered during my search of family papers. I Googled the name of the school, county and state.
A search like this can literally deliver millions of results. In fact, this specific search brings up over 1 million search results.
You can typically reduce the unwanted search results by 90% by using search operators. These symbols and words give Google further instructions on what you want done with the words you are searching.
While I cover a large number of operators in my book The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox, I’m going to use just one of the most popular to dramatically improve my search for the Sharon school.
In the example below I put quotation marks around the name of the school. Doing this explains to Google that I want this phrase to appear exactly as I typed it in every single search result. You’ve probably noticed that when you search a phrase by itself, you’ll receive results that include only one of the words, or the words spelled differently, or in a different order. The quotation marks search operator prevents this from happening. It mandates that the phrase appear on every result exactly as you typed it.
Using Search Operators to Google the Grade School
Notice that I didn’t put quotation marks around the county name or the state. I recommend using search operators sparingly, at least in your initial search, to ensure that you don’t miss out on good results. If I were to put quotations marks around “Madera county” I would not receive any web pages that do mention Sharon School but just don’t happen to mention Madera County as a phrase.
Notice also that this search resulted in just over 11,000 results, a small fraction of what I would have received had I not used the quotation marks! Even more important is that the results on the first few pages of are all very good matches.
I could try a few more variations such as adding words like history, genealogy or records.
My googling led me to the Internet Archive where I found old silent color movies shot in the 1940s. There were several films and one featured the local school in the area where my relatives lived. Many, many people were filmed! Could one of those faces be one of my relatives?! Learn more about finding genealogical information includes school records by watching and reading 10 Awesome Genealogy Finds at the Internet Archive.
Click image to watch episode 43.
4. Search Newspapers
Historic newspaper are also a wonderful source of honor rolls, school sporting events and anything else having to do with school life.
While there are certainly more historic newspapers online than ever before, it’s still a fraction of what is available.
Click the U.S. Newspaper Directory button at Chronicling America
On the Directory search page, enter the state, county and town:
Search the U.S. Newspaper Director for the school location.
On the results page, click the “View complete holding information” link:
Click “View the holdings”
Now you can view all of the known available locations for this item:
The item I searched for has three known locations.
In my case, the Chowchilla newspaper of the early 20th century has not been digitized and is not available online. However, the California State Archives in Sacramento has an extensive collection of microfilm. I was able to make the trip in person, and was certainly glad I did! They not only had the newspaper I needed but also countless other resources that were helpful for my genealogical research.
My Grandma listed by name in the newspaper for making the Freshman high school honor roll.
Here are additional resources to help you find newspapers for your school records research:
Local newspapers can also be found by searching for the public library website in the town where your ancestor attended school. Check the library’s online card catalog or contact them directly to see what newspapers they have and whether any can be loaned (on microfilm) through inter-library loan.
Click here to search Genealogy Bank – (This page includes a 7 day free trial option.) This popular subscription website has over 11,000 newspaper, 95% of which Genealogy Bank says are exclusive to their website.
5. Consult U.S. State Archives and Libraries
The public libraries and state archives across the country are a treasure trove of genealogical resources, and that includes school-related records.
While it’s easy to stop by your local library for a search, it may not be as easy to make your way to the public library in the town where your ancestors lived. Turn to the internet to do your homework regarding the repositories, their holdings, and the most convenient and economical way for you to access them.
Click here to read Archivist Melissa Barker’s article called Using Vertical Files in Archives.
6. Contact State Historical and Genealogical Societies
In addition to newspapers, state historical and genealogical societies might have old yearbooks, school photograph collections or other records. For example, the Ohio Genealogical Society library has a large collection of Ohio school yearbooks.
Local historical and genealogical societies may also have school memorabilia in their small or archived collections.
To find contact information for a local historical or genealogical society, Google the name of the county and state and add the words genealogy, history and / or society at the end. For example: Darke County Ohio genealogy society.
7. Search for Online Yearbooks
One of the most exciting genealogical record collections to have come out in recent times is Ancestry.com’s U.S. School Yearbooks 1900-1999 collection. It is an indexed collection of middle school, junior high, high school, and college yearbooks from across the United States.
In June of 2019 Ancestry replaced old records with new updated records for most of the yearbooks found on the site. They also added new records from 150,000 yearbooks that previously only had images available. Later in August of 2019 they improved the collection even further by adding a staggering 3.8 million new records. This update also included 30,000 new image-only books.
Ancestry also has an extensive indexed collection of middle school, junior high, high school, and college yearbooks for Canada. Click here to search the Canadian collection.
MyHeritage has an international collection of yearbooks. In the menu under Research go to the Collection Catalog and search for Schools & Universities.
Additional websites featuring yearbooks include:
Old-Yearbooks.com – According to the website, “Old-Yearbooks.com is a free genealogy site, displaying old yearbooks, class rosters, alumni lists, school photos and related school items. All materials on this site are the property of the submitter. You may not use the images, text or materials elsewhere, whether in print or electronically, without written permission from the submitter or this site.”
Classmates.com – “Register for free to browse hundreds of thousands of yearbooks! You’ll find classic photos of friends, family, and even your favorite celebrities. Viewing the books is always free, and you can purchase a high-quality reprint.”
E-Yearbook.com – Their goal is to digitize all old high school, college & military yearbooks. The site has millions of yearbook pictures digitized, they say they are adding thousands of new pictures every week. “From our estimates, we offer the largest collection of old high school, college and military yearbooks on the Internet today.”
8. Check Township Archives
You might be thinking you didn’t read that right, but you did. Townships are small areas within the county. These small townships may have their own archives or one room museums. They are often the holders of some pretty one-of-a-kind finds.
The best way to determine what the township may have is to contact the township trustees. Google your township name, the county name, state name, and add the word trustee. You will likely need to give one of the trustees’ a phone call to ask what resources might be available.
The auction website ebay is the perfect place to look for school record and memorabilia, particularly hard-to-find yearbooks.
Conduct a search on the school or town you are looking for to see if anyone is selling a yearbook that you want. (You’ll need a free ebay account to do this.) Also, search for old photographs or postcards of the school building that you can add to your family history.
Initial search for school items at ebay
When I searched for Chowchilla California School, several auctions for school-related items from Grandma’s high school came up. Unfortunately, these are auctions for yearbooks after she had already graduated. But no worries! This search is only for today. Tomorrow someone could put up an auction for exactly what I want. There’s only one problem: no one has enough time to search every single day!
A way to save time and ensure that you don’t miss new auction items is to save your search.
Click the Save this search button toward the top of the page:
Click the Save button to save the search you just ran.
By doing this, you will be sent an email any time a new auction comes up that meets your search criteria. You can learn more about setting up ebay saved searches for family history by listening to Genealogy Gems Podcastepisode #140.
Here’s another one of my favorite strategies: After you run your initial search, check the box on the results page to include completed listings.
Click the Completed search box in the left hand column
In the revised “Completed” search results you may see some items that are of interest. If the item has a green price, it means the item was sold. If the price is black, it did not sell.
Each item will also have a link that says View Similar Active Items. Click that to see a list of items currently for sale that are very similar to one that you wanted.
You can also contact the seller of any item to inquire about the unsold item or to ask whether they have related items.
Bought on ebay: A yearbook from the school where my husband’s grandfather was a music teacher
I bought the yearbook above on ebay several years ago. It includes several photographs of my husband’s grandfather who was a music teacher at the high school back in the 1940s.
10. Call the School
If the school is still in operation, try calling the main office of the administration office. They may have old yearbooks and scrapbooks in their library or on display. If they don’t, they may very well be able to tell you where they can be found.
You can obtain contact information by Googling the name of the school and the location.
Good times to try calling a school are mid-morning after kids are settled into class, or between 3 and 4:00 pm local time, when many of the kids have gone home but the school office is still open.
Tell Us About the School Records You Find
Using these strategies you are bound to find more school records for your genealogical search. Please leave a comment below and share what you found, where you found it, and which strategy you used. It will inspire us all to keep looking! And if you have a favorite strategy that we didn’t mention here, please do share that too.
In this episode, I chat with Angela Walton-Raji, expert in U.S. and African-American research, about tips for interviewing relatives and taking your African-American family tree back to the era of slavery.
Other highlights of this episode include:
A RootsTech 2017 recap, with info on archived streaming sessions;
Great news from Findmypast about its new Catholic Heritage Archive;
A ground-breaking study from AncestryDNA that identifies specific migration patterns among genetically-related clusters of people;
Follow-up mail from Lisa’s Episode 200 celebration;
An expert Q&A on finding relatives who don’t appear in the census where you expect them to;
A teaser clip from the upcoming Genealogy Gems Book Club interview with Annie Barrows, author of The Truth According to Us.
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.
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.
INTERVIEW: ANGELA WALTON-RAJI
Angela Walton-Raji instructs the African-American Genealogy Research Essentials webinar.
Angela’s oral history questions: What to ask your elders
Did they happen to know anyone who had been born a slave when they were a child?
Who was the oldest person that you remember when you were a child? And did that person ever talk about anyone who may have been enslaved?
What do you know about where the family was from? (Were we always from Georgia, or, were we always from Pennsylvania, or was there a time when we came from another place? (Read more about the Great Migration she mentioned.) Why did we move? Who remembers that journey?
Were people involved in the Civil Rights movement, in the Garvey era, with the Freedom Riders, or other important events in their lifetime? What kinds of things did they see?
Who in the family participated in the military (in World War II, I, the Spanish-American War)? African-American military units through the mid-20th century were still referred to as Buffalo soldiers. (She mentioned the Triple Nickel, a unit of all-black World War II paratroopers.
Lisa Louise Cooke uses and recommends RootsMagic family history software. From within RootsMagic, you can search WebHints on FamilySearch.org, Findmypast.com and MyHeritage.com. Soon RootsMagic will also be able to search records and even sync your tree with Ancestry.com, too.
EXPERT TIP ON FINDING ANCESTORS “MISSING” IN CENSUSES
Read their Q&A: Kate Eakman takes on a Gems listener question from someone who has already done a lot of work trying to locate a relative in the 1940 U.S. census
Legacy Tree Genealogists provides expert genealogy research service that works with your research goals, budget and schedule. The Legacy Tree Discovery package offers 3.5 hours of preliminary analysis and research recommendations: a great choice if you’ve hit a brick wall in your research and could use some expert guidance.
There is no doubt that this is an exciting time to be a genealogist. Here at Genealogy Gems, we are announcing new record collections online every month, advances in genealogy databases and their ability to retrieve the information we are looking for, and of course, DNA testing. There really has been no time in history where such a wealth of information about our past has been so readily available to so many.
In another ground-breaking development in the DNA world has been a recent publication in a scientific journal by the scientific team at AnccestryDNA. It is titled, “Clustering of 770,000 genomes reveals post-colonial population structure of North America.” Or, in more understandable terms, “Your DNA can tell us where you came from in America in the last 500 years.”
Wow, right? So how did they do this?
Well, the power really is in the numbers. In this particular paper they used 770,000 people, but now that they are approaching having testing 4 million people, you can bet the same principles will be applied to a larger data set and we will see even more as a result. But even though it takes a large data set to accomplish this, it really all still comes down to the relationship of two people.
To start, Ancestry determines how just two people are genetically related. Then they find how those two are related to a third, again, looking only at pairs of people. This goes on and on and on until everyone in the group as been compared. Then we use a graph to plot those relationships, with those more closely related clustering around each other. Then the real key, the point where we see the marriage of genetics and genealogy: they add in the family history information for each of these individuals in the cluster. What they found was astounding. They have displayed the data in Figure 3 in the paper:
Distribution of ancestral birth locations in North America. Summary map from Nature Communications; click to see article with full explanation of map data. Image used with permission of Ancestry.com.
It is a map of the United States with colored dots scattered across the landscape. The location of the dots corresponds to the genealogy of those tested, while the color of the dots relates to their genetic clustering. Those who clustered closest together are the same color. The result is a nearly perfect rainbow, with each color holding its respective spot on the map, with very little overlap between groups. (There are actually two maps in the paper, just to make things easier to see.)
We might be tempted when looking at the maps to think, oh, well, of course there is a large population of European Jews in New York, everyone knows that, no breakthrough there. But it IS!! This isn’t their family history, or their accent or their culture that is telling us this, it is their genetics!
As if that wasn’t exciting enough, further on in the paper they describe how we can trace migration patterns of different groups over just a few generations. In the paper they specifically mention French Canadians and Cajuns/Acadians, but this same principle can theoretically be applied to dozens of other groups.
For example, let’s say you have an ancestor in Texas about 4 generations ago, but you aren’t sure where she came from. If technology like what is published in this paper ever reaches your testing company, your DNA could tell you that you fit into the Lower South group, meaning that your ancestor likely hails from, well, the South!
This is just a glimpse into what the advances in genetics are bringing to your genealogy toolbox. So hang on to your hats, and keep tuned in here at Genealogy Gems for all of the latest updates.
It’s the summer of 1938, and wealthy young socialite Miss Layla Beck is now on the dole as a WPA worker, assigned to write a history of the small town of Macedonia, West Virginia. As she starts asking questions about the town’s past, she is drawn into the secrets of the family she’s staying with and drawn to a certain handsome member of that family. She and two of those family members take turns narrating the story from different points of view, exploring the theme that historical truth, like beauty, is often in the eye of the beholder.
Annie Barrows is also the co-author of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. This novel takes place after World War II in a London recovering from the Blitz and an island recovering from German occupation. At the heart of Guernsey is an unlikely love story and the inspiring tale of a community that took care of each other in their darkest days with humor, compassion and good books.
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 Genealogy Gems!
The Genealogy Gems Podcast is the leading genealogy and family history show. Launched in 2007, the show is hosted by genealogy author, keynote presenter, and video producerLisa Louise Cooke. The podcast features genealogy news, interviews, stories and how-to instruction. It can be found in all major podcasting directories, or download the exclusive Genealogy Gems Podcast app to listen to all the episodes and receive bonus content.
Lisa Lisson and Lisa Louise Cooke at RootsTech 2020
Lisa Louise Cooke’s Tip:
Put the year in the file name first. It automatically puts your files in chronological order. (Genealogy Gems Premium Members can learn how to implement Lisa’s entire computer filing system by watching the Premium videos Hard Drive Organization Parts 1 & 2.)
Always try to only touch a piece of paper once. Make a conscious decision what to do with it and do it: Work with it right now, File it, or throw it away. Don’t just move it around your desk.
Lisa Louise Cooke uses and recommends RootsMagic family history software. Visit www.RootsMagic.com
GEM: DNA Q&A with Andrew Lee
Interview with Andrew Lee, author of the book DNA Q&A. Click here to order the book.
Andrew Lee and Lisa Louise Cooke with a lucky winner at RootsTech 2020
GEM: Evidence & Proof with Kate Eakman
The Genealogical Proof Standard tells us that we need to conduct reasonably exhaustive research in order for our work to be credible. If you’ve ever wondered just what constitutes “reasonable” (and if your family tree is up to snuff) my guest author Kate Eakman, professional genealogist at Legacy Tree Genealogists, has answers.
45 Minute Online Genealogy Consultations: Sometimes the wrong evidence or assumptions can push us into a brick wall. A fresh set of expert eyes can help you identify the problem and recommend the sources you need to pursue in order to compile trustworthy evidence.
If you are looking for some assistance in your genealogical research, Legacy Tree Genealogists can help. Our affordable ($100 USD) Genealogist-on-DemandTM Virtual Consultation service provides you with the opportunity for a 45 minute one-on-one discussion of your research with one of our expert genealogists. We can help guide you in evaluating evidence and determining research strategies to move forward with your research confidently.
The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox , 3rd Edition
By Lisa Louise Cooke
Fully Updated and Revised!
Brand New Chapters
Featuring Lisa Louise Cooke’s Google Search Methodology for 2020
A lot has changed and it’s time to update your search strategy for genealogy!
Click to order your copy of “The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox, Third edition” by Lisa Louise Cooke
Discover the answers to your family history mysteries using the newest cutting-edge Google search strategies. A comprehensive resource for the best Google tools, this easy-to-follow book provides the how-to information you need in plain English.
This book features:
Step-by-step clear instructions
quick reference pages.
Strategies for searching faster and achieving better results.
How to use exciting new tools like Google Photos and Google Earth.
Welcome to this step-by-step series for beginning genealogists—and more experienced ones who want to brush up or learn something new. I first ran this series in 2008-09. So many people have asked about it, I’m bringing it back in weekly segments.
Episode 35: Do Your Genealogy at the Public Library, Part 2
In Episode 34, Patricia Van Skaik, Manager of the History and Genealogy Department of the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County, talked with me about the unique genealogical resources in public libraries just waiting to be discovered. She gave us some great ideas on how to prepare for your visit to get the most out of your time at the library.
Today, we go deeper into genealogy research at the public library. Pat is back and she talks to us about:
How to search an online library card catalog, including advanced search methods;
What kinds of unique collections may be at public libraries, and helps us learn to ask for exactly what we want!
The obstacles librarians face when it comes to cataloguing large and unique collections that may interest genealogists.
So dust off your library card and grab your book bag and let’s head back to the public library!
Top Library Tips from Pat and Lisa
You don’t have to be advanced on computers to use advanced searches. Use these to home in clearly on what you’re looking for!
Don’t think of the public library as just as place to go look at their holdings. Talk to librarians about how to use resources (databases, websites) and how to evaluate what you’ve discovered.
Some items are buried at the library. Asking for help may lead to accessing just the records you want. Examples include items in pull-out collections, closed stacks (not in the public areas of the library) and maps, which aren’t always listed in the card catalogue.
Tell the staff what materials are important to you. Your interest may lead these items to become more accessible, or be indexed or digitized.
Separate your search terms in advanced searches. Don’t just keyword search “marriages San Francisco.” Enter these terms separately in the advanced search. You may bring up items not found while searching these keywords together.
A lot of local history and genealogy materials do not circulate through interlibrary loan. Some items are totally unique and people travel to that library to see it, so they don’t send it out. One option is to ask the librarian to check the index and table of contents, then scan or photocopy the pages of interest to you and send them. There may be a charge for this but it’s better than not being able to get the book at all!
Finally, don’t make assumptions. Particularly, Pat says, don’t assume that…
A small library doesn’t have much advanced technology;
A library resources only cover its immediate locale; and
If you can’t see it is not there! Ask about closed stacks.
Links for Public Libraries and Library Resources
WorldCat.org (to search for materials across multiple libraries)