Family History Episode 3 – Working Backward and the SSDI

Family History PodcastTune in Tuesday: The Family History: Genealogy Made Easy Podcast

Published October 15, 2013

by Lisa Louise Cooke

Download the Show Notes for this Episode

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. So many people have asked about it, I’m bringing it back in weekly segments.

Episode 3: Working Backward and the SSDI

In our first segment in this episode my guest is Miriam Robbins Midkiff, a well-known genealogy blogger and teacher. She shares her best research tips, what motivates her to delve into her family history and how that discovery has enriched her life.

Then in our second segment we answer the question, “Why do we work backwards in genealogy?” and then fire up the Internet and go after your first genealogical record. Below, find current links to the record sources I talk about in the show. Also, when I recently checked, the Social Security Death Index was no longer free at WorldVitalRecords as I mention in the podcast and some of the site features I mention may have changed. I’ve given you links below to more options for searching, including plenty of FREE options!

Working Backward

When it comes to tracing your family history, there are standard methods that will help you build a solid family tree. Starting with yourself and working backwards is a cornerstone of genealogical research. It will be tempting to start with a great grandparent that you just got some juicy information on after interviewing Aunt Martha, but resist the temptation to start with that great grandparent, and go back to the beginning – and that’s YOU!

There’s a very good reason why working backward is so effective. Let’s say you have filled in info on yourself, and then recorded everything about your parents and now it’s time to work on one of your grandfathers and all you have is the date he died and the date he was born. If you are lucky enough to have his birth date and birthplace and you get his birth certificate it will tell you who his parents were, but it can’t predict his future can it? Where he went to school, where he lived over the years, etc. Documents can only tell you what has occurred in the past, not what will occur in that person’s future.

But if you get his death certificate it will give you key information at the end of his life that can lead you to the various events throughout his life. If you don’t have his birthdate and birthplace, you’ll probably find it on the death certificate. It will also likely name his parents and his spouse. A birth record can’t tell you who he will marry, but a death record can tell you who he did marry. You can start to see how starting at the end of someone’s life and working backwards will be the most efficient and accurate way to research.

Records are like the bread crumb trail of your family tree! If you don’t work systematically backwards, it will be very easy to miss a crucial piece of evidence, and you might end up relying on guesswork and end up building a false history on it. Believe me you don’t want to invest time in a tree that you’re going to have to chop down and replant!

So now that you understand and are committed to following this cornerstone concept of systematically starting with yourself and working backwards, it’s time to fire up the Internet and put it into practice by finding your first record. What type of record will we be looking for? A death record of course!

Is one of your parents deceased? If so, you’re going to start with them. If they are still living, and you’ve got their information entered into your genealogy database choose one of their parents, your grandparents, who is deceased – or if you’re lucky enough to be starting at a young age you may have to go back to a deceased great grandparent! (And good for you for starting now while you’re young!)

The SSDI

Chances are the person that you’ve chosen, for this example let’s say it’s your grandfather, he most likely had a social security card. And there is a wonderful free database online in the United States called the Social Security Death Index, what is commonly referred to as the SSDI, that you can use to find that grandparent.

In 1935 the Social Security Act was signed into law by President Franklin Roosevelt, and consequently more than thirty million Americans were registered by 1937. Today, the Death Master File from the Social Security Administration contains over 89 million records of deaths that have been reported to the Social Security Administration and they are publicly available online.

Most of the information included in the index dates from 1962, although some data is from as early as 1937. This is because the Social Security Administration began to use a computer database for processing requests for benefits in 1962. Many of the earlier records back to 1937 have not been added.

The SSDI does not have a death record for everyone; and occasionally you may find an error here and there if something was reported inaccurately, but overall it’s a terrific resource! As with all records it provides clues that you should try to verify through an additional record source.

There are many websites that feature this database, as seen in the UPDATED links below. This database is free at most sites, even sites that charge for access to other data.

On the Search page, enter your grandparent’s given name which is their first name, the family name which is their last name or surname, the place of their death – this could just be the state – and the year they died, and click the Search button. Hopefully you will get back a result that includes your grandparent.

Now remember you’re looking at an index, not an original record or primary source. We talked about sources in Episode 2. A primary source is a document that was created at the time of the event by an authoritative source, usually someone with direct personal knowledge of the event that’s being documented, like a death certificate is completed at the time of death by the attending physician. These are the best and usually most accurate types of sources you can find. And that’s what we want!

The really key information in this search result is the county information. In order to get an original death certificate which would be your primary source you have to know which county they died in. You may already know that for your grandparent, but keep this in mind because the further back we go, the more crucial it will be to know the county involved since that’s where death certificates are recorded.

By any chance did your grandparent not show up in the results even though you know they worked after 1937 when the Social Security got rolling, and you know they have passed away? Don’t fret – We have other ways to try and find the info!

This brings us to what I think is a really important concept to keep in mind whenever you’re researching your family on the Internet. Each search is conducted at a specific moment in time. Running an SSDI search or a Google search tomorrow might give you results different than the one you ran today. The Internet is being updated second by second, and the SSDI has been updated several times over the years.

In the case of the SSDI database, you can’t be absolutely sure that the website you are using to search the SSDI has the most current version available. Look in the database description on the site to see how recently it was updated.

Here’s a perfect example of that: When I searched for my grandfather on my dad’s side from the Family Tree Legends website, I got no results. Now I KNOW he died in 1971 and I KNOW he worked his entire life so he had to have been registered with Social Security. Then I went to Ancestry.com and searched for him in their SSDI database and he popped right up.

On the other hand, my maternal grandmother shows up on all three websites I’ve mentioned. In most cases, you’ll find who you’re looking for, but occasionally, like with my grandfather, you may have to dig in your heels and try the SSDI on a couple of different websites to find who them. Never give up, never surrender. That’s my motto!

And of course, each website offers just a little different variation on the terms that you can search on.

So just in case you have a stubborn ancestor who eludes your first SSDI search, try finding them  at several of the SSDI databases. If you do have luck on World Vital Records, be sure and click the More Details link next to your search results because it includes some fun extras like a link called Historical Events next to their birth year and death year that will take you to a list of important historical events that were happening those particular years. It’s kind of fun to see what was going on in the world when your grandparent was born.

You’ll also find a link called Neighbors which will take you to a listing of folks who lived in the same county as your ancestor and died in within a year or two of them.

But most helpful is that your research results on World Vital Records will include a listing of nearby cemeteries which are good possibilities for where your ancestor may have been buried. (Again, just clues to hopefully send you in the right direction.) But as I said, the death certificate is going to be your best and primary source and almost always includes the name and address of the cemetery where the person was buried.

Here are a few more search tips if you don’t find your ancestor right away:

1. Make sure that you tried alternate spellings for their name. You never know how it might have been typed into the SSDI database.

2. Many SSDI indexes allow you to use wildcards in your search. So for example you could type in “Pat*” which would pull up any name that has the first three letters as PAT such as Patrick, Patricia, etc.

3. Try using less information in your search. Maybe one of the details you’ve been including is different in the SSDI database. For example it may ask for state and you enter California because that’s where grandpa died, when they were looking for Oklahoma because that’s where he first applied for his social security card. By leaving off the state you’ll get more results. Or leave off the birth year because even though you know it’s correct, it may have been recorded incorrectly in the SSDI and therefore it’s preventing your ancestor from appearing in the search results.

4. Leave out the middle name because middle names are not usually included in the database. However, if you don’t have luck with their given name, try searching the middle name as their given name. In the case of my grandfather his given name was Robert but he went by the initial J.B. But in the SSDI his name is spelled out as JAY BEE! Go figure!

5. Remember that married women will most likely be listed under their married surname, not their maiden name. But if you strike out with the married name, go ahead and give the maiden a try. She may have applied for her card when single, and never bothered to update the Administration’s records. Or if she was married more than once, check all her married names for the same reason.

6. Don’t include the zip code if there is a search field for it because zip codes did not appear in earlier records.

While most folks will appear in the SSDI, there are those who just won’t. But knowing where information is not located can be as important down the road in your research as knowing where it IS located, so I recommend making a note in your database that you did search the SSDI with no result. This will save you from duplicating the effort down the road because you forgot that you looked there. I admit it, in the past I’ve managed to check out books I’ve already looked through and order a record or two that I already had. Lesson learned!

So here’s your assignment for this week: Go through your genealogy database and do a Social Security Death Index search on every deceased person who was living after 1937. Hopefully you will be able to fill in several more blanks in your genealogy database and family tree!

Up next: Episode 4: Genealogy Conferences and Vital Records

Researching to write a family history narrative

Dale Spaulding discovered remarkable stories when he was researching his family for over 30 years. But he got a little worried that these really uniquely American stories were going to be lost to time if he didn’t do something about it. Maybe you have some of those same fears. It was his determination to preserve that family history that was really the driving force behind why he sat down and wrote a book about it. It’s called Fortitude, Preserving 400 years of an American Family’s Faith, Patriotism, Grit, and Determination. (This affiliate link helps support this free content.)

Dale joins me to share how he went about getting started researching his family tree to prepare to write his narrative. He also shares what motivates him to keep on researching. 

Watch the Video

Show Notes

Downloadable ad-free Show Notes handout for Premium Members

What is a Family History Narrative

  • Creative Nonfiction
  • More than Genealogy Names/Dates
  • Stories about your Ancestor’s Lives
  • Begin with Dramatic Event (Leaving the Old Country)
  • Project Entails Exhaustive Research
  • The Why? Legacy to Pass to My Descendants

Getting Started in Research

  • Nail Down the Genealogy Data
  • Caution on Ancestry.com
  • FindaGrave.com
  • Seek Corroborative Record Evidence
  • Meticulous Documentation – Source Notes (Watch Source Citation for Genealogy)
  • Become a Student of History

Research Tips

About Dale Spaulding

Dale R. Spaulding is a lifelong student of history. He’s discovered remarkable stories of his family’s long and rich past during thirty-plus years of research. Concerned that these uniquely American stories would be lost to time, he was determined to preserve them for generations to follow – one of the reasons he authored Fortitude: Preserving 400 Years of an American Family’s Faith, Patriotism, Grit and Determination.

Dale Spaulding, Author of Fortitude

Dale Spaulding, Author of Fortitude

During his career, Dale navigated the oceans and seas of the world in his twenty-two years of service in the U.S. Navy retiring as a Lieutenant Commander. Following the Navy, he was a software quality engineer and technical fellow at The Boeing Company. Dale then served as director of a national church planting organization.

Dale is a graduate of Auburn University and the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School. Now retired, Dale and his wife Nancy reside in Virginia and they have two sons and four grandchildren. He is passionate about his faith, his family and his country.

Visit Dales website: https://dalespaulding.com

Resources

Downloadable ad-free Show Notes handout for Premium Members

Stay tuned for upcoming videos on Dale’s writing process. 

More Videos & Show Notes:

 

How to Use Google Lens

Elevenses with Lisa Episode 27

Original air date: 10/1/20
Join me for Elevenses with Lisa, the online video series where we take a break, visit and learn about genealogy and family history.

how to use google lens

Google Lens with Lisa Louise Cooke

What is Google Lens?

Google Lens is a free technology that Google says helps you ”search what you see.” It uses the latest in Optical Character Recognition (OCR) and artificial intelligence to accomplish tasks.

In this video and article we’ll discuss where you can get Google Lens and how to use it for a wide variety of tasks.

Hang on tight to your phone and let’s jump in!

Google Lens is in Google Photos

Google Lens is doing much of the work in Google Photos. It can detect the faces in your photos, and allow you to search by face. It can also detect objects and text, making it a super fast way to search the photos and images you store in Google Photos.

If you’re not interested in storing all of your photos on Google Photos, that’s OK. As a genealogist, you could still use it for more strategic purposes. You could use it just for family history photos and related genealogical images like documents and photos of tombstones. All of the content you add can then be quickly and easily searched for and found. It can even help you identify a known ancestor in other photos where you may not have recognized it was the same person.

We will talk about specific ways to use Google Lens in Google Photos. But first, let’s talk about all of the ways you can get your hands on Google Lens.

Where can I find Google Lens on my phone or tablet?

Google Lens is available on most mobile devices but not all. Some Samsung devices don’t currently support it. Here’s where you can find Google Lens.

Google Lens is built into Google PhotosDownload the Google Photos app to your phone. Pull up one of your photos and look for the Lens icon at the bottom of the screen. If it is there, your phone supports Google Lens.

Google Lens in the Google Search app – You will see the Lens icon in the search bar if your phone supports Google Lens.

The Google Lens app – On Android devices look for the Google Lens app in the Google Play app store.

Where can I find Google Lens on my computer?

Google Lens is primarily a mobile tool although Google Lens is built into the functionality of Google Photos. (It works behind the scenes – you won’t find a Google Lens icon.)

However, you can use your phone to user Google Lens to capture text and then send it to the Chrome browser on your desktop computer.

Using Lens in the Google Photos App

To use Google Lens on your photos in the Google Photos app, you’ll first need to give the app permission to receive the photos you take with your phone. You can then open the Google Photos app and select a photo. In this episode I used the example of a potted plant (Image A below).

Google Lens in the Google Photos app

(Image A) Google Lens in the Google Photos app

Tap the Google Lens icon at the bottom of the screen and you will receive search results that include the name of the plant, photo examples of the same plant, possible shopping options, and web pages providing more information about that plant.

Here’s another way you can use the Google Lens feature in the Google Photos app:

  1. Take a photo of a business card. (I used Google’s PhotoScan app to do this. The app does a great job of removing glare and other distortions that can occur when you photograph something with your phone. You can download the free Google PhotoScan app from your device’s app store.)
  2. Access the photo in the Google Photos app.
  3. Tap the Google Lens icon.
  4. Lens turns the information on the card into actionable buttons:
  • Add to contacts
  • Call now
  • search on the web
  • go to the website

 

Google Lens is in the Google Search app

On many mobile devices such as the iPhone (but not all devices) the Google Lens icon will appear in the search bar. If you’re not sure if you already have the Google Search app on your phone, go to the app store app on your phone and search for “Google Search.” You will see the app listed with a button that either says “Open” (because it is already on your phone) or “Install” (because it is not yet on your phone.)

You can also check to see if they app is on your phone by searching for “Google Search” in the search bar of your phone.

Here’s what the Google Search app looks like on a phone (Image B below):

The Google Wearch app

(Image B) Look for the Google Search app on your phone.

 

The Google Lens App

If you have an Android phone, search the Google Play store for the Google Lens app. Here’s what the app looks like (Image C below):

google lens app

(Image C) Android users with phone’s supporting Google Lens will find the app in the Google Play app store.

What Google Lens Can Do

Once you start using Google Lens the possibilities for its use can seem endless. Here’s a list of the kinds of things Google Lens can do:

  • Shopping
  • Identify Objects
  • Copy Text from printed materials or objects
  • Search for Text on printed material or objects
  • Solve math problems
  • Read text to you
  • Translate text

How to Use Google Lens to Read a Book

Before you buy that next history book or go through the trouble of requesting it through inter-library loan, why not let Google Lens determine if it is already available for free online? This next tip works really well for old books that are likely to be in the public domain or printed before 1924.

  1. Open the book to the title page
  2. Open the Google Search app on your phone
  3. Tap the Google Lens icon
  4. Hold your phone over the title page
  5. Tap the search button
  6. If the book is available on Google Books, the title will appear along with a blue “Read” button
  7. Tap the “Read” button to access, read and search the book on Google Books for free!
Learn more about Google with this book

(Image D) Point your phone’s camera or Google Lens at the QR code

Open the camera on your phone and point it at the QR code above (Image D)  to be taken to the book in the Genealogy Gems store.
Use coupon code LENS to get 20% off!

Resources

Premium Video & Handout: Solving Unidentified Photo Album Cases. (This video features using Google Photos.)
Book: The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox by Lisa Louise Cooke. (Includes search strategies, Google Photos, and Google Translate.)

Bonus Download exclusively for Premium Members: Download the show notes handout

Answers to Your Live Chat Questions

One of the advantages of tuning into the live broadcast of each Elevenses with Lisa show is participating in the Live Chat and asking your questions. 

From Rosalyn: Lisa are the old photos hanging on your wall the originals or copies? They are very nice.
Lisa’s Answer: I always put copies in frames when I hang them on the wall because light can fade originals. They are all my family.

From Jn Rollins: ​Does it do the same identification for birds?
Lisa’s Answer: I haven’t snapped a photo of a bird, but I’m sure it could. I used it on a photo of a bird, and it identified it perfectly.

From Susan: ​I have to download an app to get the lens icon?
Lisa’s Answer: If you have an Android phone, you may be able to download the free Google Lens app from your app store. Otherwise, you will find the icon in the Google Search app or the Google Photos app on supported devices.

From Patriva: ​Is Google Go the same as Google Search?
Lisa’s Answer: Google Go is a “lighter faster” search app. I think it may be geared more toward Samsung devices. I have a Samsung Tab and it doesn’t support Google Lens.

From Carrie: ​Does this work with the Google Chrome app?
Lisa’s Answer: The Chrome app doesn’t have the Google Lens icon.

From Jn Rollins: ​I installed Lens a while ago on my Android phone, but when I open Google search the lens icon doesn’t appear next to the microphone icon. How can I change that?
Lisa’s Answer: Some Android devices (like Samsung phones) don’t support Google Lens so you won’t see the icon. Check the app store to see if they offer the Google Lens app for your phone. However, I’m guessing it probably won’t be offered since it sounds like your phone doesn’t support Google Lens.

From Christine: ​I love this technology for speeding up research! But I have some reservations—what privacy are we giving away? How will Google use our search history?
Lisa’s Answer: I would not use Google Lens for anything I consider “sensitive.” Go to the privacy settings in your Google MyActivity to learn more.

From Lynnette: ​Can you put the text into Evernote easily?
Lisa’s Answer: Absolutely! Tap to copy the detected text, open an Evernote note, press your finger in the note and tap Paste to paste the text.

From Colleen: I see you are google searching. Does doing this with photos allow others to access my google photos when searching for an item? For example, the example you used with the purse?
Lisa’s Answer: To the best of my knowledge your photos are not searchable by others online. However, it is possible that Google uses the image internally to “train” the machine learning. Go to the privacy settings in your Google MyActivity to learn more.

From Christine: Lisa, can this be used to compare photos to determine if they are the same person? Thanks for sharing all your wisdom!
Lisa’s Answer: Yes! Watch my Premium membership video called Solving Unidentified Photo Album Cases.

From Caryl: ​Don’t know what a symbol is on a headstone? Now this would be oh so helpful!!
Lisa’s Answer: Yes, indeed!

From Susan: ​I quickly took a photo of the book cover, so now I can get your book! Is it better to buy directly from you or go to Amazon?
Lisa’s Answer: The book is available exclusively at my website: https://www.shopgenealogygems.com

From Debbie: Will FamilySearch’s app be independent, or will it work / integrate with Google?
Lisa’s Answer: FamilySearch would not be integrated. However, as handwriting technology is developed I’m sure you’ll find it in use in both places.

Please Leave a Comment or Question

I really want to hear from you. Did you enjoy this episode? Do you have a question? Please leave a comment on the video page at YouTube or call and leave a voice mail at (925) 272-4021 and I just may answer it on the show!

If you enjoyed this show and learned something new, will you please share it with your friends? Thank you for your support!

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