Sunday, December 15, 2013

Using a census for family history research

Censuses were not created for family history research but can be an invaluable resource. Find out what censuses exist for the area where your family lived, then learn what information was collected, what instructions the census-takers were given, how dates and ages were recorded, etc.
  • Always record information about a woman using her maiden name, but search a census using the name the woman would have been known by at the time of the census.
  • A family's name may have been misspelled.  Expect variations from census to census, particularly if the name was complicated and "foreign".
  • The census-taker's penmanship may make it difficult to decipher (and index) the name. Keep searching if you can't find someone that should be found. If you can't find the person by last name, search by first name, location and birth year, search for someone else that should be in the household, or by some other combination of criteria.
  • The search results you get when you use,, or any other web site are an index designed to point you to the actual census record.  Don't stop with the index! Look at the image, and learn what every field means. has a variety of census records for the US, Canada, England, Wales, Scotland, Mexico, Argentina, Germany, Ivory Coast, Spain, Switzerland, and more.  Click on [Search]. then [Browse All Record Collections] and narrow your search to "Census and Lists."  See the FamilySearch wiki for more information about using census records, or stop by the Family History Center.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Christmas Cards as Family History Clues

Published by J. Hoover, Philadelphia [Public domain],
 via Wikimedia Commons
Do you have a box of old Christmas cards? Letters and Christmas cards can help you learn more about your family.  Do you recognize the handwriting?  Is it signed?  Is the address familiar? 

If the card is undated but includes a stamp, you can calculate an approximate date by determining the historical cost of postage.  Learn more about historical postage rates and mailing practices at the United States Postal Service page Our History: About Stamps and Postcards.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Finding Your mid-1800's Ancestors in a Published Local History

If your ancestors lived in a small community in the US in the late 1800's, it is possible they may have been mentioned in a local history book.  County histories tell the story of the formation of the county, list local churches and civic organizations, and include biographies and photos of prominent citizens.  Learning more about the county where your ancestors lived can help you better understand how they lived, and can give you clues about what records might exist.

 Even better than having an index in the back of a hard-bound book, many county histories are now available online, which means they are fully text-searchable. Some of the largest collections of digital family history books are at FamilySearch Family History Books, Internet Archive, and Google Books

Public libraries, university libraries or historical societies may have digital content unique to their area. Look for a "Local History" link, or search their catalog for your ancestor's surname, plus the county (or community) and state, e.g., Wunderlich Cole County Missouri or the surname and "local history".

If you do find your ancestor mentioned in a digitized local history that is no longer under copyright, you may be able to download the page, or the entire book.

So-called "mug books" may contain inaccuracies.  Use a published biography to point you to official records.