Tag Archives: research

Maps: Visualizing Your Ancestors – Types of Maps – Plat Maps

One type of map that can be helpful to pay attention to are boundary maps. I’m usually focusing at the county level. I have a couple of ancestors who were “border dwellers” meaning they lived on or near a county boundary. Sometimes I find records for them in one county, sometimes another. What is going on there? Did they move? Or did the county boundary change? OR, a third option, was the nearest courthouse in the next county over? Some court actions did not have to be in the county where a person lived so it may have been more convenient to go to a neighboring county to file that record.

I usually use a county map that is at least at the township level, and I typically use them in conjunction with a landowner map. You have to know where exactly in the county (and township) someone lived to understand if they moved or if the boundary changed.

One of my favorite ancestors to research is Thomas C. Mitchell. After the Civil War, he lived in Montgomery County, Missouri, but right on the border with Audrain County.

Two landowner maps showing T.C. Mitchell’s proximity to the border.

Sometimes you cannot find a map for exactly the right time frame. Simply find the next closest and use that for your comparisons and analyses. In my example above, you can see the map on the left is from 1877 Audrain County and the map on the right is 1897 Montgomery County. I lined them up as best as I could using the train line as a guide.

These township maps show you the section numbers; Thomas lived in section 18 in that particular Township/Range. We know that each section is one square mile. That means that Thomas lived about 1.5 miles from the nearest town of Martinsburg. If he could do the business he needed to do, you can bet that he did it in Martinsburg. I have found many records for Thomas in Audrain County even though he lived in Montgomery County.

If your ancestor never moved but the county boundary changed, you have to look for records in both counties. The county clerks did not sit down and divvy up the records according to those that lived in the new county. They just kept the records in their original location. So, for border dwellers, always be checking nearby counties. A landowner and county boundary map can help you decide in which counties to look.

More map types next time…

Maps: Visualizing Your Ancestors – Types of Maps – Topographical

When it comes to understanding ancestral migration patterns, it really helps to look at a map. The reason an ancestor ended up in a certain location might be explained by geography, and more specifically, topography. Using a topological map can be quite helpful in understanding some of the potential “whys” for things our ancestors did.

Topography is “the arrangement of the natural and artificial physical features of an area.”1 Examining the physical features can explain a possible migration route or why they stayed in a particular location.

One excellent example of topography affecting migration is that of large mountain ranges. Let’s look at Virginia as an example. Let’s say you had ancestors in early Virginia and they wanted to move west to the “frontier.” They set off past Richmond only to discover a large mountain range in front of them. The Blue Ridge Mountains caused a lot of adventurous folks to head north or south to go around them.

Map of Virginia from FreeWorldMaps.net

This barrier caused more settlements to the north and south. As I imagine it, you make a long journey to get around these mountains…why not just stop here a spell? And then just never leave. I imagine that happened quite a bit.

My ancestor, Samuel Cook Dimick, moved from Lyme, New Hampshire to Toledo, Ohio. One account says that after the business he was working for began shutting down (or he decided to quit working there, it isn’t clear) he was to move on further west (perhaps to Minnesota where his father owned some land). But someone told him of land for sale just one county to the south and he decided to stay in Wood County, Ohio. And that’s the reason I was born in Wood County, Ohio and not Lyme, New Hampshire.

We will continue our look at types of maps that can help us understand our ancestors’ decisions and circumstances next time.


1. Definition of “topography” from Oxford Languages (https://languages.oup.com/google-dictionary-en/)↩

Many Paths to Sources: Vital Records Part 1

Generally speaking, in the United States, the requirement to record vital records (I’m primarily referring to birth and death certificates here, marriages are a bit different and we will discuss them in a later post) did not begin until the early part of the 1900s. This requirement was done on a state-by-state basis, so each state’s law started at a different time. Each state will have different privacy protections in place based on the state law at the time. This means some states are very difficult to get a vital record from and others are easier. For example, a birth certificate may not be available to the public for 100 years, but a close family member (you will most likely have to prove your relationship) may be able to get a copy of the record. These requirements differ from state-to-state, and the laws change over time. So, it is best to examine the state’s vital records office for the most recent information.

Ohio Death Certificate for Marshall C. Dimick

When I am looking for vital records, I usually have a few things I do to locate them. The order in which I do these may depend on how old the birth or death certificate is. If it is more recent, I might start at the state vital records office. If it is an older record, I might start at the FamilySearch catalog. My steps:

  • Read up at the state vital records office website.
  • Read the FamilySearch Wiki for that state’s vital records.
  • Look at some of the larger genealogy websites for vital records databases, such as Ancestry.
  • Examine the state-level archives, historical society, genealogical society, or whatever repository the state sends its historical materials to (if they do).
  • Examine the state and county of interest at the FamilySearch catalog to see if they’ve been microfilmed. Some counties may have done a local registration for births and deaths years before the state requirement was in place. This is true for Wood County, Ohio and Audrain County, Missouri, two locations I have successfully found county level vital records.
  • Look at online, user-contributed sources such as Find a Grave or public online trees in case anyone has posted a birth or death certificate for the person in question. (This can be surprisingly successful.)

The most important thing when trying to get a vital record is understanding when each state began requiring them. And understanding that it took a while for the counties to comply with new state laws. If a death certificate was required in 1909 and you cannot find a death certificate for 1909 or even for several years after, realize that things did not happen instantly in the early 1900s. I have looked for vital records in some states and sometimes cannot find them for 10 or more years after registration was required. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t recorded at the county level (though it may). More likely, the systems weren’t in place yet to comply with the laws.

Next time, we will look at some vital records substitutes and places to look for alternatives to the traditional birth or death certificate.

Many Paths to Sources: City Directories, Part 2

Last time we looked at major online locations where you might be able to find city directories. But what happens when that does not turn up a city directory for the location you are hoping to find one? There are a couple of extra steps I take before I declare “There was no city directory!”

The first stop for me is WorldCat. WorldCat stands for the “world’s catalog.” It is a conglomeration/consolidation/consortium (I’m not sure what the exact right word is here) of libraries who participate in sharing their collection’s catalog in this larger catalog, called WorldCat. It allows users to find books, journals, articles, and other media across many, many collections, making it much easier to locate a source you are looking for.

When you go to WorldCat, you treat it just like any other library catalog. You can type in a title or keywords in the search box and get results. The fun comes in what you can do with those results. Let’s look at some results for “bowling green ohio city directory.”

WorldCat Results for “bowling green ohio city directory”

You can see at the top of the results list that there are 94 items that come back for these key words. You can see along the left some filters you can use to narrow your results if you have more specific needs. Let’s take a look at a specific directory entry and click on the 1930 Bowling Green, Ohio, directory at the bottom.

Catalog Entry for an item from the list

This page is similar to a library catalog page you’ve likely seen before. You can see the title, publisher information, subjects, and so on. WorldCat then shows you all of the libraries you can find this item in. In this particular case, only one library (well, one that participates in WorldCat, remember) has this item in their collection. It is at the Ohio History Connection in Columbus. From where I live, it is 1100 miles away. When you find an item that is located in more than one collection, you’ll be treated with a list of several libraries where the item can be located.

WorldCat also has a nice feature in that you can designate your favorite libraries, and they will pop to the top of your list. Another item from our search list is Bowling Green (Ohio) city directories on microfilm. That catalog entry looks like this:

Another entry from WorldCat showing a favorited library

This item is located at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City. You can see the little heart on the left which indicates that it is one of my favorite libraries. If there are libraries you frequent, having them indicated as “favorites” brings those libraries to the top of your list and makes them easy to find. When I find items at my favorite libraries, I often add them to the research list for the next time I visit that facility.

Let’s refer back to number 1 in the first results screen above. It is for Bowling Green, Ohio city directory by Johnson Publishing Company. Here is the catalog entry:

WorldCat entry

You can see there are only two locations that have this particular series of directories in WorldCat, Bowling Green State University and SEO Automation Consortium. However, having been to the Wood County District Public Library myself, I know they have a whole bunch of city directories for Bowling Green. Let’s look at their catalog:

Wood County District Public Library Catalog

They have the Johnson city directories starting in 1975. Examining their other catalog entries reveals that they have a large number of directories, covering a wide range of years. They are not a participating library with WorldCat. In fact, their website has a Local History and Genealogy section detailing some of the resources they have that could be of use to genealogists.

WCDPL Website showing the Local History & Genealogy page

My point with this is, use WorldCat, but don’t stop there. Your next step, if you don’t find what you are looking for in WorldCat is to look at a local public library. Most often, I find these directories in those small, local libraries. Very often they have a local history and/or genealogy room. If you don’t find it in a catalog, give the library a call or send an email. I have found most of these repositories and their employees to be quite helpful. They are likely to be able to make copies or have a system for requesting copies. Or you might need to find a volunteer to help you or pay a local genealogists to look for you if you can’t make it yourself. Some items might be available via interlibrary loan.

Just don’t stop looking.

Many Paths to Sources: Newspapers, Part 3a

(I know these titles are getting a little bit ridiculous, but there are a couple of steps to this third part and I figured I’d break it down into bite-sized chunks.)

The last two posts talked about online options for finding newspapers. You’ve got the “bigger” websites such as Newspapers.com, but there are also smaller, lesser-known projects out there to discover as well. Now, once you’ve exhausted every online resource you have been able to discover, what then?

I know this might come as a shock to some, but it isn’t all online. I know it seems like it is, because so much is! But it’s not. So, what do you do when you’ve discovered that there are no online options for what you are hoping to find in terms of newspapers. You have to jump in to what I refer to as “two-step” research. The first step is to determine if and where an offline record exists, and most of this first step can be done online or from home with some phone calls. The second step is determining how best to access those offline newspapers.

The first step of this I also call the “pre-research.” If you’ve listened to any of my lectures, I use this phrase a lot. It is the research you have to do to be able to do the research. Make sense? Clear as mud? Well, let’s clear it up. I have a perfect example. I conduct a lot of research in Bowling Green, Wood County, Ohio. That’s where I was born. Many generations of my ancestors lived in Wood county since at least the 1840s. Newspapers from Wood County are only slightly digitized and available online. The main newspaper for Bowling Green is not. So, what’s a researcher to do.

My first stop when looking for any newspaper in the United States is Chronicling America’s “US Newspaper Directory, 1690-Present.” The Library of Congress has put together this directory of newspapers published in the United States since 1690. The best part is that it tells you what newspapers existed for a time and place, AND how to access them.

Chronicling America’s US Newspaper Directory

Selecting Wood County, Ohio shows that there are 104 titles in Wood County. The one I most want to access is the Daily Sentinel-Tribune (in red below).

Clicking on that link provides you with a nice informative screen about that particular newspaper, including when it was published and preceding and succeeding titles.

If there were a digitized version at Chronicling America, there would be a calendar view of available issues in the large white space to the right of the catalog entry. In this case, there is not. If you want to see other titled in that city, county, or state, there is a button for that. However, the most valuable button on this catalog is the “Libraries that Have It” link at the top. I issue a word of caution, however. This particular entry does not list the Wood County District Public Library in Bowling Green, which I know for a fact holds the entire run on microfilm. I’ve spent countless hours there going through the films.

My point here is to not stop looking… again. Just because the LOC doesn’t list a local library for a source for newspapers, do not stop looking. ALWAYS, ALWAYS check that local public library for the possibility that they hold the records you are looking for.

The Wood County District Public Library Website for Local History and Genealogy

If I hadn’t already known that the WCDPL holds those microfilms, I may have stopped there and assumed that the newspapers did not exist anywhere. Which is not unreasonable. Newspapers were not printed on acid-free paper and stored in temperature and humidity-controlled rooms until sometimes it was too late.

Newspaper crumbles, photo taken by author

Do you see what I mean by “pre-research”? You have to research where the sources are before you can access them. Next up, how to best to access the newspapers that are not online.

Many Paths to Sources: Newspapers, Part 2

Last time we looked at some of the big and obvious sources for finding online newspapers. But there’s more out there. You just have to have a lot of persistence and a little bit of luck. I’m talking about not stopping at just the major sites I shared last week. That is literally the tip of the iceberg. There are so many digital collections that are separate, part of a small local project, and just not known to the larger outside world. Here’s where you start (one of these, not in any particular order):

  • Local public libraries, especially if they have a local history collection
  • Local historical societies and museums
  • Local genealogical societies (“local” might mean regional, look at the next biggest town)
  • Nearest university (and then the next, etc.)
  • Town, city, county, state (and whatever the jurisdiction setup is in other countries) repositories such as an archive, library, historical and genealogical society, and so on

To learn about these you could do a simple Google search (‘Wood County Ohio public library,’ for example) or you could use other resources such as Cyndi’s List or the FamilySearch Wiki for genealogically specific information. Let’s look at an example.

I had a client who’s ancestors were from Glengarry County, Ontario but one of a set of sisters had moved to New York City where she became a nurse. I needed to prove that the particular sister was in New York City at the right time to have given birth to my client’s grandmother. Of course, this is between census years; city directories were not easily available for the right years for the right borough; and etc. I was also unable to find mention of this sister in any newspaper in New York City and vicinity. However, I found a treasure trove of digitized newspapers at the Glengarry County archives.

Glengarry County Archives – Browse Local Newspapers

Lo and Behold! I found articles describing when the sister went to New York for nursing school, when she came home for visits, her progress, her graduation, her new job in a New York hospital, and more. I was able to prove that she was in New York City at the right time and place. This is not a collection that is highly visible through other sites. These digital images are not a part of a large subscription service.

I found this resource that helped solve my client project because I have a list of places I start looking when the “big” sites fail. That list is the bullets listed above: libraries, historical societies, genealogical societies, universities, county and state level archives. This method has worked too many times for me not to follow it. If it helps, make a sticky note with that list on it and keep it near your computer.

Whatever you do, don’t give up when those major sites do not provide what you are looking for. You can’t give up until you’ve exhausted those and this list. Next time, we will discuss what to do when you’ve exhausted both of those. Keep searching!

Many Paths to Sources: Newspapers, Part 1

First, let’s take a look at newspapers. Newspapers are one of my favorite subjects to speak about. Finding your ancestors in the newspaper gives you a nice, albeit often short, snapshot into their lives and gives their lives extra flavor. It helps turn them into real people that existed rather than just names on a document.

There are some fantastic online options for finding newspapers. The big three sites for subscriptions:

And there is not one that is better than the other. They all have different collections, so the one that is right for you, is the one that has the series of newspapers with your ancestors in them. Be sure to check their catalog for coverage before buying a subscription. All of these sites let you do that, so don’t skip this step and then get disappointed if they don’t have the papers you needed.

There are many free sites for newspapers across the U.S. Many states have a state digitization project and corresponding website. Here are just a few:

Of course, there is the Library of Congress’s collection of digitized newspapers:

Internationally, there are also some free digital newspaper sites as well. I know of a couple where I’ve done research:

Then there are link sites such as:

The above, is a lot. But is is literally just scratching the surface of what you can do with newspaper research. In Part 2 we will look more closely at finding newspapers online. In Part 3, we will delve into finding and accessing newspapers offline.

Many Paths to Sources: It’s Not All Online

In the genealogy field, you might see the statement “it’s not all online” frequently. Unfortunately, with so much being online, we tend to think it ALL is. Ancestry, FamilySearch, and others, with their hint systems and click to add to family trees has trained us that if it isn’t online, delivered by a hint, then it probably doesn’t exist. This is simple neurology as well. The brain does not like to work hard.1 So, if there is not an easy way to find or get something, the brain gets on board with “if it isn’t online then it doesn’t exist” mentality. But it’s not all online.

As an admin on the Facebook group The Genealogy Squad, we see this happen all the time. People ask for where they can find vital records, yearbooks, city directories, newspaper articles, and so on. When the answer comes back that the particular thing they are looking for is not online and they will need to call or email a specific repository, they balk. Surely it is online somewhere. Oh, I have to make a call, and possibly PAY for said document?!?

TV shows and movies do not help this either. I watch NCIS and Criminal Minds, all of which would have you believe that the smallest bit of information can be found online, regardless of whether you have a warrant to obtain that information, but that’s another topic altogether.

The companies that are digitizing, are choosing to do so based on whether they can sell a subscription, with the exception of FamilySearch. They digitize to preserve according to their religious beliefs. It takes a lot of time and resources to do the digitizing, store the digital images, create databases linked to those digital images, etc. so you can sit at home and do this from your computer with minimal effort. I’m all for it. But if you truly want to obtain those harder-to-find documents, solve those mysteries, and break down the proverbial brick wall, you have to go further sometimes.

In this blog series, we will look at some common sources and explore some of the other ways you might consider to obtain that source. Fair warning, it may take a little more thinking, exploration, and effort to obtain. But I want us all to get a little less comfortable so we can get a little further ahead with our research projects.


1. Elliot T. Berkman, “The Neuroscience of Goals and Behavior Change” (Consult Psychol J. 2018 Mar; 70(1): 28–44; digital copy, US National Library of Medicine (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5854216/).

PERSI: Tips for Getting Copies of Articles

You might notice, when you use PERSI, that once you find an article you want to read, there’s no link to view it. Can you imagine the task and resources needed to digitize, store, link, and do all of the other techno-shizzle-wizzle needed to house digital images of the over 8,000 titles in the collection that starts from publications in 1847 to today? That’s millions and millions of pages. So, remember, PERSI is an index. In our day of instant gratification, we want to be able to click and see the article. But that is not possible, here and now. You have to do some extra work to get the benefit of PERSI.

When you find an article you want here are some ways to try to obtain a copy. These are not in any particular order. It depends on the journal, the society, the library, etc. There’s no way to know ahead of time which one of these will work best for that journal.

  • Look up the journal title on WorldCat to locate a library that holds that journal. Then see if they have a copy/scan service to provide the article. Most do. Or you can try interlibrary loan to obtain a copy.
  • Look up the publishing society’s website. I have found several genealogical societies that have already digitized their own quarterlies and make them available on their website, often for free.
  • Hire a professional to make copies. You could hire someone that frequents Allen County Public Library, or someone that frequents a library you located using the WorldCat step above. I recommend the Association of Professional Genealogists’ Directory. This link will show you those that list Allen County Public Library under their repositories.
  • Contact ACPL directly. There is a form for ordering articles under the “Our Services” link found under “Explore Genealogy” on the ACPL homepage. No offense to anyone that works at ACPL, but that form indicates that it will take “6-8 weeks” and I’m an impatient genealogist, so I try any of the other steps before I will try this one. And I have never had to use this form. Something else invariably works, and works faster than 6-8 weeks.
  • If none of the above work (which I highly doubt, but anything is possible), then visit ACPL and find them yourself. (Highly Recommended!) The library is lovely (see below).
Allen County Public Library, photo by author, 2013

Those are my best tips on PERSI, on of genealogy’s most under utilized resources in my opinion. I hope you will use it more and learn how to use it more effectively with the tips in this series.

PERSI Tips: What Kind of Index is it?

The Periodical Source Index (PERSI) began as a print publication in 1986 by the staff at Allen County Public Library (ACPL). ACPL’s collection holds over 8,000 titles of genealogical society journals. PERSI was first published as a 16-volume set covering the years 1847-1985, and then annually. It was also available on microfiche at FHL and CD-ROM through Ancestry.

Print volumes of PERSI, located at the Texas State Library and Archives Commission, Austin, Texas, photographed by author.

In 1997, Ancestry made PERSI available as a free online database. This was also the last year it was available in print. PERSI has been available for free through HeritageQuest and most recently through Findmypast (FMP). However, the contract with FMP is ending and for reasons not disclosed, ACPL is going to host the index on their own site: https://www.genealogycenter.info/persi/

What kind of index is it? Let me sum up the biggest misunderstanding in one sentence:

PERSI IS NOT AN EVERY NAME INDEX!

The biggest misunderstanding and misuse of PERSI is that users expect to be able to put in their person’s name or even a surname, and find information about that person. That is not how PERSI was indexed. PERSI is a keyword and subject index. The indexers did not index every name in a cemetery transcription published in a local society quarterly. They did not index every name in a transcribed local tax list. They did not index every name published in a military draft list for a county.

To best use PERSI, you need to think in terms of subjects and keywords. If someone is the subject of an article, you will find their name in the index. But if they were among those listed as petition signers, for example, you will not find them.

Over the next several posts, I will share some of my best tips, case studies, examples, and how to obtain copies of the articles, so that you can get the most out of PERSI.