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 4: Attending Genealogy Conferences and Vital Records Requests
In our first segment, our guest is the longtime online news anchorman of genealogy, Dick Eastman, the author of Eastman’s Online Genealogy Newsletter. He talks about the changing industry and the benefits of attending genealogy conferences.
Next, you’ll learn the ins and outs of using some “vital” sources for U.S. birth and death information: delayed birth records, Social Security applications (SS-5s) and death certificates.
Genealogy Conferences Conversation: A Few Updates
Dick and I talk about Footnote.com as a relatively small site. Has that ever changed! Footnote.com is now Fold3.com and it’s a go-to site for millions of online American military records.
Family History Exposstill offers an exciting conference, especially for first-timers. But there are others as well: In the United States, there’s RootsTech, the National Genealogical Society and many state and regional conferences (like one near my home, the Southern California Genealogical Society’s annual Jamboree). Find a nice directory at Cyndi’s List. Many conferences are starting to offer live streaming sessions for people who can’t attend: check websites for details. In addition, Family Tree University offers regular virtual conferences—where sessions and chat are all online! If you live outside the U.S., look for conferences through your own national or regional genealogical societies. If you can get to London, don’t miss Who Do You Think You Are Live.
Dick now writes all of his Plus content himself. If you haven’t already checked out Eastman’s Online Genealogy Newsletter, you should! Both his free and Plus newsletters are great insider sources on what’s new and great (or not-so-great) in the family history world.
You can order a copy of the application that your ancestor filled out when they applied for a Social Security Number: the SS-5. I have done this, and they really are neat, but they aren’t cheap. So let’s talk about the facts you’re going to find on them so you can determine if it is worth the expense.
The SS-5 has changed slightly over time, but may include the applicant’s name, full address, birth date and place and BOTH parents’ names (the mother’s maiden name is requested). If your ancestor applied prior to 1947 then you will also very likely find the name and address of the company they worked for listed, and possibly even their position title.
Here’s an example of a Social Security application form:
In the 1970s, the Social Security Administration microfilmed all SS-5 application forms, created a computer database of selected information from the forms, and destroyed the originals. So it’s important to order a copy of the microfilmed original, rather than a printout or abstract from the Administration’s database. And luckily now you can request a Social Security Application SS5 Form online under the Freedom of Information Act.
It will help to have your relative’s Social Security Number (SSN) when you apply for a copy of their SS-5. First, it gives you greater confidence that their SS-5 exists. Second, it’s cheaper to order the SS-5 when you have their SSN. Third, the Social Security Death Index, in which you’ll find their SSN, usually has death data that makes your application for their SS-5 stronger. Privacy concerns have caused some genealogy websites to pull the SSDI, but you can still search it (in many instances for free) at the links provided in Episode 3.
Finally, here’s a little background on the Social Security Number itself. The nine-digit SSN is made up of three parts:
The first set of three digits is called the Area Number. This number was assigned geographically. Generally, numbers were assigned beginning in the Northeast and moving westward. So people whose cards were issued in the East Coast states have the lowest numbers and those on the West Coast have the highest numbers.
Prior to 1972, cards were issued in local Social Security offices around the country and the Area Number represented the state in which the card was issued. This wasn’t necessarily the state where the applicant lived, since you could apply for a card at any Social Security office.
Since 1972, when the SSA began assigning social security numbers and issuing cards centrally from Baltimore, Maryland, the area number assigned has been based on the ZIP code of the mailing address provided on the application for the card. And of course, the applicant’s mailing address doesn’t have to be the same as their place of residence. But in general the area number does give you a good lead as where to look for an ancestor.
The next two digits in the number are called the Group Number, and were used to track fraudulent numbers.
The last set of four digits is the Serial Number, and these were randomly assigned.
UPDATE: The website for ordering Social Security applications (SS-5s) has changed since the podcast first aired. For current ordering instructions, including online ordering, click here. The cost is still $27 to order a deceased relative’s SS-5 if you know the Social Security number and $29 if you don’t know it.
Delayed Birth Certificates
After 1937 folks who qualified to apply for social security had to have proof of their age. If they were born prior to official birth certificates being kept in their state, they applied for a delayed birth certificate.
Anytime someone needs a birth certificate for any reason, they have to contact the state—and often the county—in which the birth occurred. If a birth certificate exists, they can simply purchase a certified copy. But if there were no birth certificates issued at the time of the person’s birth, they could have a “delayed birth certificate” issued by that state or county.
In order to obtain a delayed certificate, they had to provide several pieces of evidence of their age. If these are considered satisfactory, the government would issue the certificate and it would be accepted as legal proof of birth by all U.S. government agencies.
Originally people turned to the census for proof of age. But eventually the Social Security Administration began to ask for birth certificates. For folks like my great grandmother who was born at a time and place where birth certificates were not issued, that meant they had to locate documents that could prove their age and allow them to obtain a delayed birth certificate. Delayed just meaning it was issued after the time of the birth.
Delayed birth certificates are not primary sources. (Remember we talked about PrimarySources in Episode 2. Since the delayed certificate was based on other documents, and not issued at the time of the event by an authority, such as the attending physician, then it is not a primary source. This means that while it’s great background information, it is more prone to error. In order to do the most accurate genealogical research you would want to try to find a primary source if possible. Chances are your ancestor used another primary source, such as an entry in the family bible, to obtain the delayed birth certificate.
The process for ordering a delayed birth certificate is likely going to be the same as ordering a regular birth certificate. You would start with the checking with the county courthouse, and then the Department of health for the state you’re looking in. Let them know that the birth record is a delayed birth certificate. Also the Family History Library card catalogue would be a place to look as many were microfilmed. Go to www.familysearch.org and search for delayed birth records by clicking on Search from the home page. Then click Catalog and do the keyword search just as the episode instructs, using “delayed birth” as your keyword. (Within that search, you can also add parameters for the place name.)
So the lesson here is that even though your ancestor may have been born at a time or in a location where births were not officially recorded by the state, they may very well have a delayed birth certificate on file.
Ordering Death Certificates
The Social Security Death Index is just one resource for getting death information. But in the end you’re going to want the primary source for your ancestor’s death, and that’s the death certificate. While many of your ancestor’s born in the 1800s may not have a birth certificate, there is a much better chance that they have a death certificate since they may have died in the 20th century. Each state in the U.S. began mandating death certificates at a different time, so you have to find out the laws in the state, and probably the county, since death certificates were filed at the county level.
As I said before, the death certificate is going to be able to provide you with a wealth of information. Of course you’ll find the name, date of death and place of death, and possibly their age at death and the cause and exact time of death, place of burial, funeral home, name of physician or medical examiner and any witnesses who were present. The certificate is a primary source for this information.
You may also find information such as their date and place of birth, current residence, occupation, parent’s names and birthplaces, spouse’s name, and marriage status. But because this information is provided by someone other than the ancestor themselves it is really hearsay, and the certificate is considered a secondary source for that information.
And lastly you may find a name in the box that says Informant. This is the person who reported the death to officials. Informants are often spouses, children, and sometimes, depending on the person’s circumstances, just a friend or neighbor. But the informant is almost always someone that you want to investigate further because they obviously were close to your ancestor.
Once you think you know the location where your ancestor died, and the approximate if not exact death date, you’re ready to order a certificate. If the person died in the last 50 years you’ll probably have really good luck at the county courthouse Department of Vital Records. The older the record, the more likely it may have been shipped off by the county records department to the state Department of Health. Look for helpful links to death records at Cyndi’s List Death Records.
Here are some tips that will ensure that you don’t get bogged down in bureaucratic red tape:
Get the appropriate request form – this is usually available online.
Print neatly and clearly – if they can’t read it, they will send it back to be redone.
Provide as much information as you have.
Provide a self addressed stamped envelope.
Make one request per envelope.
Include a photocopy of your driver’s license to prove your identity.
Be sure to include your check for the exact amount required.
Make a copy of the request form for your records and follow up.
Lastly, keep in mind that county offices have limited personnel and are often swamped with paper work. So my best advice is that the more courteous and thorough you are the more success you’ll have.
Online Death Indexes
In the case of very old death certificates, as well as birth certificates, some state agencies have opted to hand them over to state Archives and Historical Societies, or at least make them available for digitizing.
And there you have it, lots of different avenues for tracking down your ancestor’s death records providing you with key information for climbing your family tree.
New U.K. suffrage records are online—and so is a related historical experience at Google Arts & Culture! Also: U.K. slavery notices, Scottish memorial inscriptions, British newspapers, and Irish school records. Featured: The Suffragettes and the Road to Equality...
Elevenses with Lisa Episode 26 Video and Show Notes
Live show air date: September 24, 2020
Join me for Elevenses with Lisa, the online video series where we take a break, visit and learn about genealogy and family history.
Newspaper Navigator is a new free online tool for finding images and photos in old newspapers at Chronicling America. It doesn’t work the way the Library of Congress website works, so in this episode I show you how to navigate the Newspaper Navigator. It’s a fun session that will have you finding new newspaper gems in no time!
About LOC Chronicling America
Chronicling America is sponsored jointly by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Library of Congress. It features free digitized historic newspapers spanning 1789-1963.
Newspapers Contain Imagery such as:
You may not find the newspaper that you need for your research in the Chronicling America digitized collection. In those cases, turn to the US Newspaper Directory. It catalogs newspapers published 1690-present. Click the US Newspaper Directory button on the Chronicling America website to search. The catalog will tell you where known copies of the paper can be accessed.
Uses of Newspaper Images
Most of the old newspapers featured in Chronicling America include images. And because these old images are in the public domain, they are an ideal complement to family histories.
If you are very fortunate you may find photos or images of your ancestors, their homes, or other things specifically about your family.
Newspaper images are also a wonderful source when you need a photo or image to represent an important idea or item when telling your family’s story, whether in a blog post, article, book, video, PowerPoint presentation or other medium. Example of this would include a photograph of a blacksmith shop in the 1890s in the area where your ancestor worked as a blacksmith, or an advertisement for a Sears home kit just like the one your grandfather built.
Chronicling America’s Newspaper Navigator
The Newspaper Navigatordataset currently consists of 1.5 million pieces of extracted visual content from 16,358,041 historic newspaper pages in Chronicling America.
The visual content was identified using an object detection model trained on annotations of World War 1-era Chronicling America pages, made by staff and volunteers.
This “visual content recognition model” detects the following types of content:
It also includes text corresponding to the imagery, identified by Optical Character Recognition (OCR).
Searching the Newspaper Navigator
You can search all images with captions. The results will be returned in a Gallery view featuring up to 100 images per page. This results format makes it very easy to quicky browse the images.
You can also switch to List view which lists the images along with the text retrieved by OCR.
How to Find Images Faster in Old Newspapers
Run a search in Newspaper Navigator of the word baseball and then run the same search in Chronicling America. A comparison of the results highlights the between Chronicling America and Newspaper Navigator when it comes to finding images in old newspapers.
The search results returned by the Newspaper Navigator are solely focused on photos and images. This means you have a fraction of the number results to review. Another big advantage of Newspaper Navigator over Chronicling America is the size of the image. Newspaper Navigator gives you just the large image to review, while Chronicling America shows you a thumbnail of the entire page with images so small that you must click and load the page to analyze them.
Images appear much smaller at Chronicling America and require you to click through to the page for closer examination.
Start by running a keyword search. (example: Blacksmith). On the results you can filter the results by Location and Years. Because the search currently doesn’t support Boolean operators or other types of search operators, you may need to run a few different versions of the same search to get a complete picture of the potential results. We’ll talk more about search strategies in just a moment.
Once you find an image you want, click to open it. The pop-up box offers these four buttons:
Download Image – Downloads a high-resolution copy to your hard drive.
Cite this – Generates a source citation that is automatically copied to your computer clipboard. Then you can simply paste it as needed. You can also cite the dataset by including the image URL, plus a citation to the website such as “from the Library of Congress, Newspaper Navigatordataset: Extracted Visual Content from Chronicling America.” According to the website, all images are in the public domain and free to use. Learn more about Rights and Reproductions at https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/about/.
Learn about this newspaper – Takes you to the Chronicling America catalog listing for the newspaper from which the image comes.
View Full Issue – Takes you to the complete newspaper issue at the Chronicling America website.
Click the buttons to select the options
My Collection at Newspaper Navigator
You can gather and save collections of the newspaper images you find using Newspaper Navigator. Start by running a search. On the results page click to select the desired images, then click the Save button. This will generate a URL for that collection and copy it to your clipboard. Since Newspaper Navigator doesn’t currently allow you to log in and return to your past searches during different sessions, I suggest pasting the URL into a research log for future reference.
Train My AI Navigators at Newspaper Navigator
A unique feature of the Chronicling America Newspaper Navigator is the ability to “train” the site to search for you. It does this through machine learning.
Elevenses with Lisa Episode 26
How to Train My AI Navigator:
Run a search
Click to select desired images
Click Save to save the collection of images
Click Train My AI Navigators
Newspaper Navigator will deliver a new set of images based on your selected images. On that page, select additional images that you want by clicking toward the top (+) of the image.
Click unwanted images by clicking toward the bottom (-) of the image.
Click to select the images you don’t want the AI Newspaper Navigator to find.
Click Train My AI Navigator again
Continue adding and subtracting images as needed to further train the system
Type a name for this training session in the Name My AI Navigator The saved AI Navigator name will appear in the Select an AI Navigator column
Click Save to generate a URL for this training session and paste into your research log.
Click + New AI Navigator to create a new training session spring boarding from the first
Click Clear & Restart to start a new search
Newspaper Navigator Search Strategies
Newspaper Navigator doesn’t, as of this writing, support Boolean Operators or offer an advanced search field. Here are some strategies that can help you have more success in searching the site:
Don’t use search operators, use variations
Even a space between initials can make a difference.
Each variation has the potential to deliver a different result in newspaper images.
Considering how many variations there can be to a name, when searching for ancestors try searching first on the name of their town or location. If there are still quite a few results, you can then filter to only newspapers from their state. I search the town name first because an article may appear in a newspaper from a different state. In the case of my search for McMinnville, I received a small, manageable results list. Had it been large and included both McMinnville, TN and McMinnville, OR, filtering to just Oregon would be helpful.
Test your search theories
Analyze your results and try variations based on what you are learning about what Newspaper Navigator is focusing on.
Search for word strings
In testing my search theories, I learned that Newspaper Navigator did not do well with multiple words that do not appear right next to each other. Therefore, I tried to find word strings that pertained to my family that I could search for such as the name of a business: Consolidation Coal Company.
Search for Photos
Another interesting search you can run is the word Photo. On the results page filter to the state and years that apply to your research.
Use List View to Find on Page
When dealing with a large number of results, List View can help speed up the review process. List View also displays the text generated by OCR. While not perfect, it can be helpful. Use your computer’s Find on Page feature (control + F on a PC, Command + F on Mac) and type in a keyword such as a surname. This will take you instantly to all occurrences of that word in the text on the page. Click the next page and run it again.
Find images quickly by word search in the List View
Learn More About Machine Learning
In the menu click Data Archaeology to learn more about machine learning and the Newspaper Navigator project.
If you’re enjoying the show, you can help others benefit from it too by leaving a comment below. Your comments…
helps me understand what matters to you.
helps others gather new ideas and encourages them to give the show a try.
tells Google / YouTube that this show is interesting and worth sending other people to through the search results.
provides great potential content for future episodes.
Clicking the red subscribe on our Genealogy Gems YouTube and then giving this video a thumbs up below the video
By leaving a comment (what you enjoyed, questions you have or what you’d like to see in the future) below this video after the show’s over or at the bottom of the show notes page if you’re watching on my Genealogy Gems website.
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.
Bert asks: Are some newspapers only available for a fee on websites such as Ancestry Lisa’s Answer: Yes, several genealogy websites have exclusive collections of digitized old newspapers. You can usually search or browse the site for free to determine if they have newspapers from the location and time frame that you need before you make a purchase. Here are some of my favorites that I’ve had good success with:
We are compensated if you make a purchase after using our links above (at no additional cost to you.) Thank you for supporting this free show by doing so!
Christine asks: (What is the ) newspaper navigator date range? Lisa’s answer: Here’s a break down of the dates:
Chronicling America covers 1789 – 1963 (digitized newspapers) Newspaper Navigator covers 1900 – 1963 (photos in digitized newspapers) U.S. Newspaper Directory at Chronicling America covers 1690 – present (catalog, only some are digitized and those are part of Chronicling America.)
Rachel asks: I have an ancestor that was in the social pages all the time in our local newspaper in the 1800’s. I thought it would make a great book or video, any ideas on how to showcase them the best? Lisa’s answer: I love both of those ideas and I cover many more in my Premium Membership video Inspiring Ways to Captivate the Non-Genealogists in Your Life. Personally I have found that short photo books and short videos that tell one story are received the best by family members. They both offer opportunities to share and highlight items from newspapers. Learn more about quickly and easily making family history videos by watching Elevenses with Lisa episode 16. And I strongly encourage Premium Members to watch these two videos:
lagomcurt asks: Are local small-town papers included in the collection? Lisa’s answer: Yes.
June asks: When you download it ask what to save as. What is your suggestion? Lisa’s answer: I think you’ll find that JPEG is currently the only option in the Save as Type drop-down menu.
Sharon asks: Does Chronicling America have foreign language newspapers in America? Lisa’s answer: Absolutely! Searching in the language will help retrieve items.
Ohio Waisenfreund newspaper at Chronicling America
Pat asks: Does it have Irish American newspapers? Lisa’s answer: Chronicling America does have Irish American newspapers. If they were published between 1900-1963 then they will be searchable by Newspaper Navigator. I would also recommend searching all newspapers (online and offline) by clicking the U.S. Newspaper Director button at Chronicling America. Then search by ethnicity (Irish) and Material Type (online.) You will find that some are linked to other websites where they can be found online. If you see an image of a newspaper on the catalog page, then you know it is available on Chronicling America in a digital format.
Search for Irish newspapers online at US Newspaper Directory
Mark asks: Can the wash out pictures be enhance with the new MyHeritage Photo with the sharping feature and colorization to make it a better final experience with images? Lisa’s answer: Yes indeed. Because the original quality will be poor and with low dots per inch (dpi) it likely won’t improve the way an original photo would. However enhancing and coloring just takes a few seconds and definitely improves the image. Even better, it often makes the print much more readable. I use it on documents too. Click here to try MyHeritage.
Newspaper photo enhanced and colorized with MyHeritage
Kathy asks: If you do a search in English, will it find the search term(s) in newspapers that were written in German? Lisa’s answer: No. You will need to search in German to pick up on any German text. However, if the image itself is similar, My AI Navigator should pick it up.
Lucinda asks: Who is in your necklace and the photo behind you, Lisa? Lisa’s Answer: It’s my maternal grandmother’s high school graduation photo.
Please Leave a Comment or Question Below
I really want to hear from you. Did you enjoy this episode? Do you have a question? Please leave it below. You can also call and leave a voice mail at (925) 272-4021 and I just may answer it on the show!