Do you have a family reunion, wedding or another special family gathering coming up soon? I’ve been busy helping plan my youngest daughter’s wedding, and we are looking for ways to capture memories from our loved ones while they are all together.
Hannah and I aren’t the only ones looking to make the most of this exciting event. Genealogy Gems podcast listener Kirsty recently asked me how she could incorporate family history gathering at her upcoming wedding (Congratulations, Kirsty!) and here’s what I told her:
1. Search family reunion websites and other websites for ideas you can convert to a wedding reception. For example, Reunions Magazine has a page devoted to family history activity ideas for family reunions. A search of Google and Pinterest should help you find more ideas. Check out my Pinterest board called Incorporating Family History Into Your Wedding.
My Board: Incorporating Family History into Your Wedding
2. If you have your guests seated at tables, that’s a great opportunity to provide an icebreaker that can double as a family history gathering opportunity. You could have a form at each place setting for them to fill out. If you are having a videographer, you could have a short list of questions at each table, and when he comes to their table he records them answering the questions. (What’s your earliest childhood memory? Who’s the earliest ancestor you have a photograph of? What are three things you remember about great-grandmother? etc) Can you imagine how this Martha Stewart placecard on Pinterest (which I found by searching “family reunion history” at Pinterest) might be adapted this way?
3. If you they won’t be at tables, you could have a family history table (next to another table they are likely to visit such as guest book table) and have your activity there. Let them know that this is their gift to you. You could even have some sort of treat or little sticker they can wear that says “I shared the family history, have you?” (In the U.S. when you vote they often give you a little lapel sticker that says “I voted.”) Or you could create the “Sweet Memories Candy Bars” that feature family history that I write about in my book Genealogy Gems: Ultimate Research Strategies.
I hope these ideas help inspire Kirsty and anyone who wants to gather their loved ones’ memories at their next family event!
One of the great things about presenting at genealogy conferences like RootsTech is the FREE swag they give you. Well, I’m going to pass this gotta-have-it swag along: a free all-access pass to RootsTech 2014.
RootsTech is shaping up to become the biggest annual family history event in the U.S. There’s nothing quite like it. RootsTech combines the cutting-edge excitement of a technology industry conference with learn-it-from-the-experts classes and hands-on workshops of leading genealogy educators. Whether you’re new-ish to genealogy or an expert researcher, there’s something for you at RootsTech. Check out the full agenda here, which includes a keynote by The Pioneer Woman and over 200 sessions.
RootsTech is next week in Salt Lake City. If you can be there, enter to win this way:
1. Go to the Genealogy Gems Facebook page. Like it (if you haven’t already).
2. Post a comment with the hashtag “giveaway” (#giveaway) and WHY you want to attend RootsTech. You’ll be automatically entered to win.
3. Enter by midnight on Sunday, February 2 and I’ll announce a winner on Monday, February 3, 2014.
No purchase is necessary, but please only enter if you can use the pass or know someone who can.
Are you tracing the family history of someone who lived in the U.S. during the 20th century? Check out a wonderful free database in the United States called the Social Security Death Index, or the SSDI. Keep reading for 5 FREE online sources for the SSDI, 7 tips for searching the SSDI and what you can do with SSDI info.
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! It’s especially great for many people who were missed in the 1890 census or whose birth predated vital records registration in their home state. Remember they just needed to live past 1937 and to have worked to have been included. So they could have been born sometime in the later 1800s.
5 FREE Online Sources for the SSDI
Several genealogy websites provide free access to the SSDI, including (click to go right to the SSDI at these sites):
On the Search page, enter your relative’s name and other details you’re asked for. Hopefully you will get back results that includes your relative!
7 Tips for Searching the SSDI
If your relative doesn’t show up in the SSDI, even though you know they worked after 1937 and you know they have passed away, try these search tips:
1. Does the website you are using to search the SSDI have the most current version available? Look in the database description on the site to see how recently it was updated. Try searching at other sites.
2. Make sure that you tried alternate spellings for their name. You never know how it might have been typed into the SSDI database.
3. 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.
4. 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.
5. 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!
6. 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.
7. 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.
What You Can Do with SSDI Information
Now, here comes the most exciting part of the SSDI: what you can do with that information. First, it usually includes a death date (at least the month and year) and sometimes a state and last known residence. Use this information to look for death records, obituaries, cemetery and funeral records. And use that Social Security Number to order a copy of your relative’s application for that number: the SS-5. Click here to read more about the SS-5 and how to order it.
Up next, read:
Get Started: How to Find Your Family History for Free
7 Great Ways to Use Your iPad for Family History
How to Find Your Family Tree Online
Best Genealogy Software
As you may have already noticed, a lot of websites these days host millions of family trees: MyHeritage.com, Ancestry.com, FamilySearch.org, Geni.com, FindMyPast.com, Archives.com and more. There are virtual forests and forests of family trees out there! How can you find a tree that includes your family? How can you be sure it’s yours? How do you know that what you see is accurate?
Get started with these 7 Steps: How to Find Your Family Tree Online:
1. Choose a site from the list above and create a free log in.
Which should you choose?
- FamilySearch.org is the only one that offers totally free access to all user-submitted family trees as well as the historical records that can help you with your research. However, the other sites offer a variety of free access options, especially to user-submitted trees.
- MyHeritage is known for its international user base (check out its user map here) and multi-language access.
- Some sites have different portals that specialize in records from different countries. For example, Ancestry.com (with a U.S. focus) owns Ancestry.ca for Canadian genealogy, Ancestry.co.uk for the United Kingdom and Ancestry.com.au for Australian records. Similarly, FindMyPast.co.uk (U.K. focus) also hosts FindMyPast.com (U.S.), FindMyPast.ie (Ireland) and FindMyPast.com.au (Australia). Check out additional sites for specific countries (including non-English-speaking) here. If your family recently immigrated, look for a site about “the old country.’ If you have pretty deep roots in your current country, or you’re not sure, pick a site that specializes in your current home.
2. Enter the name of one of your relatives in the Search bar.
Each site files its family trees a little differently: some with historical records and some separately. Search trees at FamilySearch here. On Ancestry.com, look under the Search option for Public Member Trees. Enter names of your relatives, along with any other details you know (like a birth date and place or a spouse’s name). Try different combinations, sometimes using the person’s first and middle name, trying a maiden name, entering a nickname, etc. Increase your odds of finding people by entering a range of years (like 1880-1890) for a date and a more general place, like a state, rather than the name of a little town. If you get too many results, enter more specific information.
Which relative(s) should you choose?
- One who is deceased, if possible. Records about living people may be restricted for some places (but not all).
- If possible, one with a relatively unusual name. They may be easier to spot.
- One you know several things about: a full name (including maiden for women), dates and places of birth, marriage and death; burial place; where they lived during their lifetime; names of their spouse(s), sibling(s) and/or child(ren).
- One who lived as long ago as possible, to increase the chance that someone has posted a tree. But a grandparent is a great starting point, if that’s as far back as you know. If your grandparent is still alive, ask them their parents’ names, and start with your great-grandparent.
- Need to learn more about your relatives first? Read this article on how to gather information about your family.
3. Click on results labeled as “family trees.” Are they “yours?”
Browse the search results. Do any of these names and details look familiar? Everything doesn’t have to be a perfect match for a tree to include your roots. Sometimes different information is handed down through different branches of a family. Sometimes people get their information from sources that don’t match yours. Sometimes people just guess or patch together parts of different family trees without looking closely to see if they’re right.
Tech tutorial: What exactly are you looking at when you look at a family tree online? Before the days of internet genealogy, researchers organized family history findings on their home computers in one of several specially-designed software programs. These programs could generate .GED files (often referred to as GEDCOMs) that would allow researchers using different software to share their findings. Many people have now uploaded their GED files to genealogy sites like the ones we’re talking about–or they’ve just built a family tree from scratch right on the site.
4. Evaluate the accuracy of what you find.
The best way to judge the accuracy of a family tree without researching it yourself is to see what proof is offered. Do you see any records mentioned (like footnotes) or attached to the tree? Common records include tombstone images; government or church vital records (birth, marriage or death records) and census listings. Do you see photos attached? Photos may indicate the submitter has access to family records or albums (bonus!).
If a tree mentions lots of sources, it’s more likely to be accurate–at least for the pieces of information that are sourced. If a tree doesn’t have sources, it doesn’t mean it’s wrong, it just means you don’t know if it’s right.
Sometimes you’ll find a “branch” on a tree that goes back many generations without a single source mentioned. Beware! Sometimes these branches are just copied from other trees. This may particularly be true if a branch is connected to a royal line. Royal lines are well-documented in history and some people have created family trees with the hope of running into royal relatives. These connections may not have been thoroughly researched–they might just represent “wishful thinking.” Again, look for sources.
5. Optional step: reach out to the submitter of promising-looking family trees.
Some sites allow you to contact them through confidential email routed through the site (you may have to purchase a subscription first). You might contact a submitter to meet a possible cousin, share information you have or ask for more details about what they posted. If you contact them, be polite–don’t open with “you got my grandfather’s birthday wrong” or you may never hear back. You may not hear back anyway, if the submitter is no longer researching, their email changed or they have passed away.
6. Google your surname along with the phrase “family tree” or “genealogy.”
See if any personal websites pop up with your family tree (or other family history information) in them. Evaluate the information by looking for accurate details (as far as you know) and lots of sources mentioned. Look for an “About” or “Contact” page to learn more about the submitter of this information.
7. Verify it yourself.
Wandering through forests of online family trees may give you the urge to create your own tree. An accurate, and sourced tree! If so, good for you. Keep reading the articles suggested below to learn how to get started!
Up next, read:
Get Started: How to Find Your Family History for Free. Perfect for the beginner!
Explore the Genealogy Gems website for more tools, tips and resources that can help you put together your family’s “bigger picture.”
Sign up for our free e-newsletter and receive my FREE ebook on using Google to find your family history.
Check out my step-by-step Family History podcast for beginning genealogists.
Post an Online Family Tree. Listen to a podcast episode (or just read the show notes) on how to post your own family tree online.