Category Archives: Research – General

Digital Collection Feature: Buffalo & Erie County Public Library

I have been working on a client project this week that took me into Buffalo, Erie County, New York, one of my favorite areas to research because of its vital role in the westward movement of the United States. Buffalo was in a prime location between the time of the Erie Canal and Lake Erie, shipping and passenger travel could occur from the east coast in New York all the way inland to the frontier via the Great Lakes, and even down the Mississippi River to areas to the south and west. The growth, opportunities, and migration through that location is amazing from an ancestral and historical point of view.

a795f06d1b6363c80fe67c7c01d6ff88One of my favorite things to do when researching at a local public library is to examine pages named “digital collections” or something similar. Today, I happened upon a new collection at the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library: ERIE COUNTY POOR HOUSE LEDGERS. This is a wonderful collection! The poor house books cover a range of years from 1851 to 1952. The pages have been beautifully digitized and the on-screen viewer is very easy to use. Zoom in to see very high-quality images.

Screenshot of the page view of one of the ledger books. Erie County Home and Infirmary (Alden, N.Y.), “Erie County Poor House Ledgers, Volume 8. Register of Deaths, Erie County Home & Infirmary, August 16, 1926-December 30, 1941,” B&ECPL Digital Collections, accessed May 30, 2018,

I am always so excited when I find digitized records such as these. To be able to access high-quality digitized records from Buffalo, NY while sitting in my office in Austin, TX is truly a blessing.

There are other items in their digitized collections and if you have Erie County, NY ancestors, I hope you’ll be heading over to their website! The URL is: for the entire Digital Collections page.

I hope you are examining local public library websites when you are researching your ancestors, and I especially hope you like to poke around in their “digital collections.” You just never know what treasures you might find!

Take advantage of your state’s offerings!

We moved to Texas about three and a half years ago now…my how time flies! Through learning the library systems in the state, which are very different to how they worked in Colorado, I discovered that as a Texas state resident, I am allowed a FREE library card to the Texas State Library, and in particular to their online digital collections! This means that I can access HeinOnline and other useful databases for FREE!

HeinOnline logo

HeinOnline is quite expensive but so useful when doing any law research as it relates to your ancestors, which you should be doing! I also discovered on the Texas State Law Library website that all of the historical Texas statutes are nicely listed and available to anyone (library card or not).

If you live in Texas and would like to get your library card, it can be done online. Click here for instructions. If you live outside of Texas, ask your local librarian or do some online searching to see what offerings are available in your state. There are valuable resources available. Be sure not to miss them!

Findmypast Offers FREE Weekend. Use it!

Great news! Findmypast is offering FREE access to British & Irish records starting today until June 26th. A couple of years ago I had great success using FMP (shared below) which helped me confirm something I’d only suspected from one word in one document. When a FREE weekend is offered on a site that I don’t subscribe to, I try to clear my schedule so I can learn as much as I can over that weekend. Here’s your opportunity if you have British and/or Irish ancestors.

From the FMP news release:

Leading family history website, Findmypast, has just announced that their unrivalled collection of British and Irish records will be free to access for the next five days. Between 04:00 EDT 22nd June and 18:59 EDT, June 26th 2017, more than 1.1 billion records ranging from censuses and parish registers to military service records will be completely free to search and explore.

By providing free access to such a wide array of records, Findmypast aims to encourage genealogists to experience the very best of everything Findmypast has to offer. Researchers will also be provided with daily getting started guides, expert insights and useful how-to blogs over the course of the free access period, as well as a free downloadable eBook entitled “your must have guide to finding your British & Irish ancestors”.

An open “ask the experts” question and answer session will also be broadcast live on Facebook at 10am EDT on Monday (June 26th). Findmypast specialists in search techniques, military records, UK family history and everything in-between will be on hand to answer any questions researchers may have, whether they’re just getting started or need help overcoming a brick wall. This will then be followed by a free webinar entitled “20 Unmissable Resources for Tracing Your British and Irish ancestors” at 11am EDT, Wednesday July 5th.

For the duration of the free access period, all visitors to Findmypast will be able to access all of the following resources for free;

The largest collection of UK Parish Registers anywhere online

  • The largest online collection of Irish family history records in the world
  • The largest collection of British Military service records and the only collection to cover all three service branches (Army, Navy & Air Force)
  • The largest collection of British WW1 records & over 2.7 million Foreign Office Prisoner of War records covering both World Wars
  • The largest online collection of England & Wales Crime, Prisons & Punishment records
  • Over 13 million Roman Catholic Sacramental Registers covering Ireland, Scotland England and the US

Findmypast is home to millions of British & Irish records you won’t find anywhere else online and is the only family history website committed to releasing new records every single week.

I had great success using FMP a couple of years ago to locate the discharge papers of my 4xGreat-Grandfather, James Sly, of Warminster, Wiltshire, England from 1819!

“British Army Service Records 1760-1915,” Findmypast ( : accessed October 2016), entry for Private James Sly, Parish of “Orningsham,” 1819; citing The National Archives (UK), WO 97 – Chelsea Pensioners British Army Service Records, Box 796, Record No. 97.

I knew from the 1841 UK census that James was a “pensioner,” but this record confirmed it and gave me more information on when he served and in what regiment.

If you have Irish or English ancestors, I do hope you’ll take advantage of this free weekend!

What I Don’t Know, Part 1: Researching in a new area

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I know it has been quite some time since my last post. I don’t know if you noticed. It’s been almost 2 months! Well, I took a little break from the blog because some other projects landed on my desk. One of which is the topic of this next series of posts. I was compelled to volunteer for something, that had to be done within a month. I told myself, in order to get my portfolio done, I need to lay off the volunteering. But I did it anyway and I learned a few things along the way and I am able to use it as a sharing/teaching opportunity.

Maybe you are like me, one of those people who finds herself volunteering for things when she didn’t mean to. I have been taking part in a study group that focuses on mid-western research. The first year there were lectures on the various record types to be found in the area. The second year (this year) we’ve been hearing case studies from study group members, one per month on one of the states. It turned out that no one had volunteered to present a case for Illinois. The coordinator was threatening to either cancel or give everyone a homework assignment instead. I watched myself as I raised my hand and volunteered to present on Illinois. I don’t really have any research in Illinois! I had just a few collateral ancestors who I knew at least passed through Illinois but I had not done any research to speak of in the state up until last month.

The next series of posts will demonstrate all of the research points I didn’t know but figured out in about 2 weeks from the comfort of home. This series will show just how much can be done from home using Internet sources and Google searches. It will also demonstrate that not EVERYTHING is on the Internet. There are many records I need to order and more I still need to find. Having very little knowledge of Illinois research when I began the project, I was able to put together an hour-long presentation that shared a good rough biographical sketch of two families that intersected in Southern Illinois, the Scroggins and Dimicks of Hardin and Gallatin Counties.

Census Hurdles – Searching Tips and Tricks

2013-10-07 03.46.42 pmAfter our tour through some of my favorite census hurdles, let me sum up with some of my corresponding tricks for dealing with them.

Language Barriers
Think in terms of thick accents and how the names may have sounded.

SOLUTION: Create a list of all possible spellings of your name to use when searching.

While you may know exactly how your ancestor’s name was spelled, the census takers and indexers did not. They did the best they could.

SOLUTION: Keep an open mind about how names were spelled in both the census and the census index.

Indexing Errors
Hard-to-read handwriting & typos

SOLUTION:  Learn about old handwriting. Read a lot of old handwriting. Look at tutorials, articles and examples on old handwriting. Be sure to make “corrections” at using the “add alternate information” link.

Quality of Information Given
How do we know who gave the information and how accurate it is? We don’t.

SOLUTION:  Take every bit of information from the census as a clue, not the truth. Always, always, always corroborate census data with other research. Back up your findings with birth, marriage, death, land records and other research.

Microfilming Errors
Did all of the pages get microfilmed?

SOLUTION:  Pay attention to the page numbers in the upper corners of the census records. If there are missing pages, you can write to the National Archives for missing pages.

Are the images readable?

SOLUTION:  Not much can be done here. You may have some luck with putting the image into a photo editing software and adjusting the brightness and contrast. Also looking at the images in the negative can be helpful.

Some other things you can do to make your census research more successful:

  • Use indexes but do not rely solely on them, as we’ve seen, there are errors.
  • Make a list of spelling variations. Write down every way you can think of that the surname could be written. Write down every way you find it indexed.
  • Read the census line by line for a given district if you are sure they should be there and you can’t find them in the index.
  • Learn about old-style handwriting. You can learn a lot about this by volunteering your time as an indexer through FamilySearch Indexing.
  • Corroborate census info with other research.
  • Don’t give up. Just because you don’t find them in an index doesn’t mean they aren’t there. Get creative with your searches.

I hope this series has given some ideas of what our ancestors, census takers, indexers, microfilmers, and researchers have to deal with during each step of the process. Between when the census taker stepped foot on our ancestors’ doors to these census indexes and images displaying on our computer screens many potential mistakes could have been made. Keep in mind the reasons, try to imagine the situation, and be creative in searching and you will have more success using census records.


Census Hurdles – Microfilming Errors

When moving from one level of human interaction with a piece of information to the next, we introduce more and more potential for errors. I’ve already discussed some sources of errors such as language barriers, literacy, handwriting, and indexing errors. There is also the possibility of errors in microfilming.

If you are browsing images either online or on microfilm, you might want to pay attention to the page numbers. Were any pages skipped when microfilming the original census books? If there weren’t necessarily page numbers on every page, you can pay attention to dwelling and family numbers to be sure they are in sequential order and none were skipped from page to page.

I have been victim to those really dark or really faint microfilmed pages. Check out some of these beauties:

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I’m not sure how we are really supposed to read these, let alone the indexers. Thankfully, there have been some really great advances in digitization and many of these dark and light images can be corrected.

Other oddities I have seen:

  • hands in the image
  • pages not completely turned
  • blurred images, as if the page was being turned while being filmed
  • other pieces of paper in the image, over the census

I’m sure everyone has a fun example of microfilming errors. I’m hoping over time, these errors are being fixed and improved. It just highlights the fact that no one is perfect, right down to the folks who run the photography equipment.

Census Hurdles – Who was the Informant?

641px-Volkstelling_1925_CensusYou might think that your ancestors were always home when the census taker knocked on the door. Or that they all sat down, had a cup of coffee or tea while they cooperated completely with the census taker’s questions. Honestly, we have no idea what happened. With the exception of the 1940 census, we have no idea who gave the information to the census taker. We don’t know if it was the head of household, his wife, one of the children, a neighbor, or if the census taker made it all up. We just don’t know.

This not knowing creates a lot of problems for genealogists who are trying to establish proof using the principles of the genealogical proof standard. Having an unknown informant on a record does not allow for the researcher to determine how much firsthand information that informant was likely to have. Therefore we have to assume that the information given to the census taker is suspect, likely to have errors. This should not stop us from using the census. On the contrary! The census is one of the records sets I use most often to establish ancestors in a time and place.

Having an unknown informant is one of those hurdles of the census. Use the data you find in the census as a road map to other documents, as the skeleton upon which other research is built. Corroborate everything you find in the census with other documents, with known informants. Only then will you be able to know you have the correct information.

Unfortunately there is no genealogical time machine that allows us to go back to the day the census taker visited our ancestors. (I’m still working on that technology in my lab. I’ll keep you posted.)

Census Hurdles – Indexing Errors

We’ve all seen it. You’re looking at the index on a commercial website and you just can’t find that name you are looking for. But there are a few that are close in other regards. Maybe the first name is correct but the last name is not even close. Maybe the last name is completely butchered but the names of everyone in the household match up to what you are expecting. And then you click to see the actual census image and there they are, the last name as plain as day to you. Why then, was it indexed so poorly?

For example, unable to find William Avery, I stumbled upon this index entry:

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It very clearly says “Avery” to me, but then again, I KNOW the name I’m looking for. Thankfully allows you to “add alternate information” that shows up when searching. Through collaboration, some of those incorrect index entries can be corrected.

Indexers aren’t always from the same geographic area as the records they are indexing. They may not even be from the same country. We’ve all heard that sometimes these indexing projects are farmed out of the country for cheaper labor. I don’t know for sure, I haven’t looked into it myself, but I know that even indexing records from a different part of the United States can be a challenge! (I’ve done it through FamilySearch Indexing and am much more comfortable indexing Ohio records than I am Georgia records.)

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A sample of a section in’s wiki on how to read old handwriting.

Aside from lacking familiarity with an areas surnames, there’s the problem of bad handwriting, old script-style handwriting, archaic letter formations, and the like. Good indexers have to try to understand old, swirly, twirly script, they have to become detectives and handwriting analysis experts. Most of the time, they simply do the best they can. There is the human factor to indexing. No one is perfect. Even the best make mistakes.

I am an active indexer for FamilySearch Indexing as well as working on indexing projects for my local area, and have come to have a completely new understanding for what it takes to be an indexer. It has allowed me to have some compassion for those who have so kindly and graciously indexed records for my benefit. I understand why ‘f’ and ‘s’, ‘z’ and ‘g’ or ‘a’ and ‘o’ get confused sometimes. Let’s not forget to be grateful for the speed with which records get indexed these days and the wide accessibility of them. (Almost gone are the days of reeling microfilm page by page by page.)

When you see those errors, think about me (and the thousands of volunteers like me), indexing your ancestors’ records to the best of my ability.

Census Hurdles – Literacy

Like the problem of language barriers, literacy (or the lack thereof) likely complicated the census taker’s job. Most of my ancestors, as far as I can tell, had a limited education. Only in the 1900s do I begin to find out that my ancestors went to school. Those that I was able to talk to only went through some elementary or middle school. Their focus was on earning a living, and especially through the Depression era, helping their parents make ends meet. School and education were not a focus in my family until recent times. I have one grandfather who attended Bowling Green State University, but it is unclear if he graduated (WWII happened and he enlisted). Other than that, it’s been my parents’ generation that really began to focus on education.

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Andrew Slye is enumerated as “Schlei”

Keep this in mind when trying to locate your ancestors in the census. While YOU may know how your ancestors spelled their names, sometimes they did not. Take Andrew Slye (father of Leonard Slye, aka Roy Rogers). He is enumerated in the 1920 census as ‘Schlei.’ We can only imagine why. I don’t believe the Slyes had accents since they had been in the country for many generations. Maybe a neighbor gave the information because they weren’t home. Maybe the census taker was foreign-born. Maybe the census taker hadn’t done that well with spelling in school or never went to school. Who knows. The point is, literacy could and did affect the way millions of ancestors were enumerated.

Literacy can be complicated by the previous post, language barriers. Imagine if the census taker had a limited education AND had to try to understand a thick accent! Double trouble.

Census Hurdles – Language Barriers

2013-10-07 09.54.11 amI have deep Germanic roots. My grandfather told stories of how his grandparents sat around the table and spoke in German. They were not the immigrants, in fact, I’ve traced back several generations beyond theirs and still haven’t found the immigrant ancestors! This tells me that they were proud of their heritage and carried their culture with them through many generations. Our country is made up of countless cultures all blending together and collectively adopting English as the primary language.

Imagine the census taker. He rode around on a horse or in a buggy or walked. He would have had to deal with the elements, hot sun, soaking rain or blustery wind. He knocks on the door of a farmhouse and is greeted by the farmer’s wife… and a thick accent. If they were not native English speakers, their ability to communicate and answer the census taker’s questions were likely limited.

l have encountered many times what I can only imagine is a problem with understanding thick accents. I have worked on the Limmer family for a long time. They have proven quite challenging to find in the census however. I would never have guessed the differing ways to spell “Limmer” but have had quite a time learning all about it:

  • Leemer
  • Leeman
  • Limer
  • Lammer
  • Lamer
  • Laman
  • Lamman
  • Limar
  • Limmar

And so on… Pondering this difference in spelling, I began to understand the plight of the census taker. First he had to try to understand what they were saying, then he had to try to spell it. And if he asked “How do you spell that?” he would have had to try to understand what letter they were saying. Pronouncement of letters varies from language to language, which I learned from taking Spanish in high school and German in college. (What letter was that?) I can only imagine.

This understanding was highlighted for me here in the 21st century. I went to lunch with my mentor Birdie Holsclaw. The lady at the counter asked for her name so they could call it out when her sandwich was ready. When we sat down, I caught a glimpse of her receipt: “Bertie.” She just typed what she heard. No accents involved! Now, imagine a German sandwich maker…