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Friday, November 20, 2009

Finding Family Stories in Online Digitized Books

For the couple of you that missed my presentation last night on Second Life (complete with slides and handouts), here is what we talked about...

It’s always exciting to find a birth, marriage or death date on one of your ancestors. So many online resources are becoming available now that make filling in those blanks easier. But what really turns ‘genealogy’ into ‘family history’ is when you start finding stories written by or about your ancestors – about their lives, their families, the times they lived in and the challenges they faced.

If you aren’t fortunate enough to have discovered a cache of family letters in the attic, or if your great-great-grand-whatever didn’t leave a detailed, hand-written journal, there is still hope that you can find some stories, or at least pieces of stories to put together to begin making some kind of picture of their lives come into view – putting meat on the bones, so to speak.

There are many really great web sites for finding stories, including online digitized books, journals, newspapers and special collections at libraries, historical and genealogical societies. For now, I’m just going to focus on digitized books online, and mainly those available for free. This probably isn’t a comprehensive list, but more the sites that I find the most helpful myself.

First and foremost is Google Books ( which is one of my favorite book sites, partly because of all that it offers. Along with full text, fully searchable results, I love the ability to download the PDF version, browse highlighted passages, and if the book isn’t fully viewable, click over to WorldCat and find it in the library nearest to me. As with any website you use regularly, be sure to spend some time seeing just what all is offered.

Recently thanks to Google Books, a friend came across a major breakthrough in her research. Her early Texas ancestor just seemed to appear out of nowhere, and she just couldn’t figure out who his parents were. But by searching in Google Books on his name, one book from the results, which happened to be about Wild Bill Hickok oddly enough, explained everything. The book described how her fellow had killed a man in Georgia, fled to Texas and changed his name by taking his mother’s maiden name! What a score! Not only did it give his original name, but also she now knew his mother’s maiden name as well, which of course helped her find the parents and take the line back even further. The book included some other great stories, including the colorful lives this man and his sons led.

HeritageQuest is another great source for online books. You can search by name, location, title or author. Books appear in full PDF form, and are downloadable, 50 pages at a time (but you can download an entire books). Unfortunately you can’t search within a page.
HeritageQuest is a really good resource for state and county histories, that usually contained paid biographies of the “representative citizens”, i.e., those who would fork over a few bucks to be included. So the mayor’s bio might be on the same page as Farmer Joe’s - you never know.

It was through HeritageQuest that I discovered the wonderful story about my 5th great grandmother, Rachel Negus, who walked from Connecticut to Ohio before it was Ohio, with her family. Before leaving CT, she gathered apple seeds from the cider mill to take with her. Once settled, she began planting the seeds, and cultivating the apples in her orchard, and named the best variety after her husband, Jonathan.

You can access HQ for free through most public library websites with your library card. If you have any problems doing that, get in touch with me and I'll give you an alternative way to get on.

Another site that focuses mainly on family histories is the Family History Archives at BYU And also found by going to and choosing ‘Historical Books’ from the ‘Search Records’ tab.

Literally thousands of items are added monthly. These books and journals come from the very top genealogy libraries in the US. In addition to the BYU libraries, the books are being digitized from the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Allen Co. Library in Indiana, the Clayton Library in Houston, and the Mid-Continent Library in Missouri.

Many of the books in the Family History Library in Salt Lake City link directly to this site through the Library Catalog, eliminating the need to request and rent the microfilm for them - yay! Save $5.50!

If you have Mormon ancestors, an incredible site to search is (Same as A free sign-in is required, but you can search, read, and contribute to the collection of personal journals and diaries. If you are LDS, and have signed into the NewFamilySearch program, the site will automatically search your online pedigree from nFS for matches.

A fairly new digitized book site is Open Library (, sponsored by the InternetArchives website, whose stated goal is to have one page for every book in print. The InternetArchive site also has a huge collection of other records - video, audio, and more, but I’ll be discussing that website at another time.

There are several sites that include more specialized collections. The Making of America collection focuses on American history from about 1840-1977, events leading to, including and post Civil War basically. The combined collections, housed at Cornell and Michigan Universities, contain over 1.5 million images from over 5,000 volumes.
The Cornell collection, , focuses on major journal literature, from general interest topics to more specific things like agriculture. The Michigan collection focuses on American History, sociology, science, technology and religion.

The Access Genealogy Online Library, has a fairly small collection (457 volumes) of books that are sorted by country and/or state. Many of these books do not have full previews available at Google, so its worth checking out.

GenealogySearch also offers a small, but unique collection of books, organized by country at .There are some very odd little titles, and include several county histories and church record books.

One excellent collection of Canadian books, over 5500 digital texts is from Canada’s Local Histories Online, at There are books both in French and English (open your google translator if you need to).

And if you have Quaker ancestors, you are in luck! One really good site is the Earlham School of Religion’s Digital Quaker Collection You can search by keyword, surname, etc, and see the results in either a transcribed form, or the original in many cases. The collection contains over 500 Quaker works from the 17th & 18th centuries.

One way of searching for online biographies, too, is using Live Roots Search . You can easily surname search several of the major sites all at once, currently including Ancestry, Footnote, GenealogyBank, World Vital Records, Google Books, ABE books, eBay and several more.

Another way to find biographies of your ancestors is to search biographical index databases. Folks included didn’t have to be famous to be included, just listed in a published genealogy book.
One genealogy specific database is the Biography & Genealogy Master Index (BGMI), which includes over 10 million names, mostly from the 19th & 20th centuries. The results of a search in this database will include names, dates and locations, as well as the complete citation for the book that it is found in. Many books may not be online, but you can locate them thru WorldCat.

The BGMI index is sometimes offered through libraries, often university libraries, but if you have access to (often free at public libraries) you can search the BGMI at
The American Genealogical-Biographical Index (AGBI) is another genealogical biography index, with millions of names from the genealogical and biographical history book collection at the Godfrey Memorial Library. The index is currently only at (

If you find a name in the index, you can contact the folks at the Godfrey and they will make copies of what you need for a minimal price (they are incredibly friendly & helpful there!) Their email and telephone # are under Contacts at the website -

Just two more thoughts on books - If you find a reference to a book your ancestor might be in, and you aren’t having any luck finding the text online, you can locate that book in a library near you by searching WorldCat - (which also provides a source citation for the book).

And if you decide that you want to purchase a book for your own reference shelf, BookFinder4U searches 130 online bookstores by best price.

Finally, just a couple of tips to help locate your folks. First, when searching, try to include ~genealogy in your search. The tilde symbol will include synonyms of the word genealogy, like ancestry, pedigree, family history, etc.

Also be sure to search variations of surnames, to allow for misspellings. And don't just search for names, but places as well. Knowing the history of where your ancestors lived can provide you valuable insights into their lives as well.

And as always, all these websites are on my toolbar! Free download, great resource for genealogy research on the internet.

I'll be presenting part two, covering online newspapers and special collections, in SecondLife, at the Just Genealogy fire pit on Dec. 17th at 6pm SL time (Pacific Time).

Monday, November 16, 2009

The more things change, the more they stay the same

I came across a large collection of high school and college yearbooks this past week, from various states in the US, dated from the 1940s-60s. What interested me more than the yearbooks was the assorted newspaper clippings that fell out of a couple of them. Unfortunately, they aren’t dated, and the names of the newspapers are not evident for most of them. These clippings are about scholarship announcements and senior honors, banquets and whatnot, and were very much what you would find in today’s newspapers around graduation.
One article slightly surprised me. It was about class of 1949 seniors, and their thoughts on life:
Bull Session Shows Students Stirred By Issues
What will the younger generation think of next? Sit in at a coke session of five seniors who will don caps and gowns tomorrow at Jamestown High School, and listen to what they are saying...”
They go on to talk just a few sentences about their school having a good industrial arts program, and driver training course, but then they get to what’s really important to them.
More Sex Education
“But we ought to have more sex education in the schools – a graduated system which would begin in the very first grade,” someone interposes. “It’s silly to only have sex education in the last two years,” says Bob. “It comes too late for some boys and girls, and improper situations could be avoided with the proper education.” “Of course sex education should be given at home, but often it isnt,” he adds. “None of this stork stuff for us! What we need is complete sex education including information on venereal diseases,” they added.

Their other concerns are echoed today - and still not adequately addressed:
Want Place to Dance
“What we need at school is some place where kids can go to dance, study and have cokes,” begins Jackie. “They talk about juvenile delinquency, but a place for high school students to go would help prevent it,” one adds.

The conversation continues with discussion of war, international diplomacy, and of course... communism in America. “Just scare talk to avert attention from something else!” is the brief comment of all.
Another article, which wouldn’t have been out of place in this year’s newspaper as well:
Few Jobs to Graduates Open; Retails Take Some/span>
Local jobs for 1949 High School graduates will be scarce, especially those in the career field, according to Donald S. Appleyard, manager of the New York State Employment Service office.

I just can’t decide what the most disturbing part of the following newspaper article is. The article was on the backside of a team picture for the Jamestown Falcons, Pony League team of ‘48, although no indication of what newspaper, day or page is available. The article reads:
22-Months Son Insists on Two Cigars a Day
Springfield, Mass. – Mrs. Lawrence Phillips was resigned today to her 22-month-old son’s habit of smoking 12-cent cigars. She said the baby, Lawrence Jr., began smoking cigarettes a year ago, but switched to cigars last month. Two a day. “We used to think it was cute,” she said. “I don’t like it now, but he squawks fierce if I don’t give him his cigars.” At least, she said, he’s a gentleman about it. “He always uses the ashtray,” she said.

Who gives a 10 month old baby a cigarette?! Who switches him to cigars?! And who in their right mind could even remotely think it was “CUTE”??!!
And folk call those 'the good old days'?? LOL!

For the most part, reading the clippings reminded me more of the saying "the more things change, the more they stay the same". I have tried to locate some of the folks named in the clippings, via, happy to send them off to someone that might want them, but have not had any luck as yet. I'll keep trying though, using internet people finders such as Google or, and perhaps posting to a message board or two. (You didn't honestly think I'd get through this whole article without turning it into a research project, did you?!)

Thursday, November 12, 2009 and a mystery solved

I've been working with the passenger lists and ship manifests from the Ellis Island website ( and, like many people, became just a bit frustrated with some of the inabilities of the search engine to find and sort the search results. Particularly, I wanted to find all of the people that came from a very small, mountain town in Hungary between the years of 1900-1920. It appears that most of the young adult men were leaving in droves, and all of them going to Milwaukee, WI!

So I switched over to Steve Morse's One-Step website ( Steve is this uber-intelligent computer programmer type of guy, that also got frustrated with the search capabilities of several genealogy websites, so he developed his own search engines for them. (Steve also has an incredible sense of humor, and can "Find Your Grandpa" in one-step, too).

From the website you can search a myriad of genealogically useful websites using many other variables, and your results tend to be much more productive. I was able to narrow down my search of the Ellis Island records by age, sex and town they came from, which helped me to find others from the families I'm truly interested, whose names were horribly misspelled.

So... part two here is that since "my guy" came from this small town, Zubak, Hungary, and headed for Milwaukee, Wisconsin, I started googling around to see what I could find online, and what I came across was an absolutely WONDERFUL family history written about a family whose ancestor did the same - came from Zubak, Hungary in 1905 to Milwaukee, WI (The Misey Family of Milwaukee)

I contacted the website's author, Neil Boyer, just wondering if he knew anything about the reasons for this seemingly mass-migration, but he didn't either. He mentioned the fact, however, that he had been unsuccessful in finding his ancestor's name on any of the Passenger Lists or Ships Manifests at Ellis Island. So... because I'm just that kind of gal ... I told him about the Steve Morse website, and voila! Success for him! Here's his e-mail to me:

Hi, Tami --

I have to thank you profusely for turning me on to Steve Morse. I had not heard of that website or research function before, and it worked. Here’s what happened:

I looked at the list of Zubakians that you sent and was disappointed that John Misey was not on the list. I puzzled over it several times, with no good result, and then I decided to check out the list of birthdates, looking for 1888 when I knew he had been born. And there, in line 41, was “Janos Hiscsy,” born in 1888, traveled to America in 1905. Reference to the Ellis Island site showed on the handwritten manifest that his name (indeed, ALL of the names) had been badly scribbled. What was intended as the surname “Miscsy” had been copied out as “Hiscsy.” Janos Hiscsy of the manifest was indeed going to Milwaukee to see his uncle. Here he is on line 19 of page 474.

So I have worked all of this into my web page on the Misey family -- and I have you to thank for the great tip. I never would have guessed that an H was really an M. - Neil

There are many genealogical lessons to be learned here:

1. Look for creative ways to solve your problems - search for others who may be in the same boat (literally & figueratively) to see how they may have handled the problem.

2. Be open to the idea that your family's name may be horribly butchered during transcription or indexing. Read names out loud and listen to yourself - does it sound remotely familiar?

3. If at first you don't succeed, try

and finally, always my favorite...

4. Share your ideas and information with other people. Pay it backwards and forwards.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Surname distribution

Randy Seaver over at Genea-Musings (I think it should be Gene-Amusings) has posted his Saturday night Genealogy fun, and it highlighted an interesting website, ( where you can enter a surname and see the worldwide distribution of that name. Clicking on the country, will then give you a breakdown, and statistics are displayed both in map form and in chart form.

I entered my maiden name "Osmer", which as far as I've ever known originated in England, and was surprised to see that the US breakdowns didn't include the states that my family were from as any of the major Osmer settlements! It included the state my dad currently lives in, but shows a large number of the surname in another county than he is in, and doesn't register his county at all. Hmmmm. I also learned that there is evidently quite a decent contingent of the family also in Germany and Argentina. Go figure.

This obviously has genealogical ramifications, although for now I'm just really even more curious about how I'm related to all those foreign folks!

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Quick formula for finding birthdates

I recently came across this "formula" for finding a birthdate*, when all you have is the death date and age, from say, a tombstone or obituary. If you don't have your date calculator handy (there's usually one built into most genealogy organization programs), you can use this "8870 formula":
Tombstone states date of death is April 11, 1866 and the person was 68 years, 8 months and 21 days old.

18660411 (year month day of death)
- 680821 (age in years, months, days)
- 8870 (subtract the number 8870)
17970720 (birthdate of abt. 1797 July 20)

I've played with it a couple of times, and if your month value is over 12, add one to the year and subtract 12 from the months. Same with the day value - if its over 30 or 31, add one to the month and subtract from the days. This isn't always 100% accurate to the day, but you can get a good idea of someone's birthdate at least!

*There are a few online sources for this formula, and it has been printed in a couple of society newsletters lately as well. I read it in my current issue of Berkshire Genealogist.