Good starts make ancestory searches better

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Yesterday, I had the opportunity to give a genealogy presentation to members of a Airstream RV enthusiasts group attending the 2013 “Unbridled Spirit” Rally for Region 5 members of the Wally Byam Caravan Club International. The rally goes through Saturday at General Butler State Resort Park.

I had a great time, but working on the presentation was one huge undertaking. It’s stunning the volume of public records available online from local, state and federal government agencies and from private historical societies and universities.

That’s in addition to the most-popular go-to sites – Ancestry.com and FamilySearch.org.

My advice to my class – and to you – is to make your first stop at CyndisList.com. When the Internet was still rather new, Cyndi Howells, a genealogist in Washington state, had collected and bookmarked a list of genealogy-related sites that she found useful. She started sharing her list with other researchers, and soon began publishing these links on her own. That was 17 years ago. Today, the site has nearly 330,000 active links; maintaining and adding links to the list – and categorizing and cross-referencing them – is her full-time job.

To be honest, I find this site can be a bit overwhelming, too. 

Unless you really are focused on what you are hoping to find, you can get sidetracked and spend hours looking at everything cyberspace has to offer.

One good way to get familiar with her site is to check the “Browse new links” page. Almost daily, Howells posts a list of links that have been added or updated on the site.

While playing there, I stumbled across a link to the Oakland Cemetery in Iowa City, Iowa. I was hooked by the description: “More than 20,000 burial records in a database with an interactive map. Located in Iowa City, Johnson County, Iowa.”

How could you not want to check out a database so vast?

I just wish I had relatives buried in that cemetery.

The site includes an interactive map. When you first open the main page, it appears to be very plain. But, using the directional buttons on the top left and zooming in, suddenly the map is filled in with a grid of all burial sites in this vast cemetery. They are color-coded to show which ones are sold, have interments, are empty or available for purchase.

You can search for a person in the database, and then it will show you on the map exactly where that person is buried. From there, you can click on the person’s name and get all the burial information, including a downloadable image of the burial card.

These cards offer great little tidbits of information. Making up a name, I searched for a Samuel Jones and found one Samuel C. Jones buried there. He owned the lot, which included six other members of his family. Just from the burial records, I was able to piece together when they all were born, when they died and had a pretty good idea of how everyone was related. If I were to continue researching the Jones family, I would be armed with enough information to search for obituaries and for state and federal census records.

Additionally, in the “notes” portion of Samuel’s burial card, I discovered he served in the Iowa Volunteer Infantry – considering his birthdate of 1838, he most likely served during the Civil War. That means, I could also search for pension and military records and find even more about his life.

I almost wish I were related to him.

The cemetery’s website can be found at www.map.ramaker.com/IowaCity.

That’s obviously just the tip of the Internet iceberg. Every state and federal repository has a website, but every site – and what it offers – is different.

At the very least, you will find indexes of records held by the repository, giving you enough information so that you can order copies or find them on microfilm during your next research trip. Many sites go a step further, providing most, if not all, of the information from those records extracted in a searchable form. Keep in mind, though, always order a copy or arrange to see the original document, as indexes often have typographical or other errors.

Others sites go even further and allow users to download digital images of the record, for free or for a nominal fee. These are my favorite sites, because of the “instant gratification” factor. I can immediately see what information is included, who provided the information to the agency and analyze its value.

For example, SeekingMichigan.org, managed by the Michigan State Archives in Lansing, has a searchable database of death records from 1897 to 1920. There, I was able to download – for free -- death records for a half-dozen of my relatives on my dad’s side, including two great-grandmothers and a great-great-grandmother.

In Kentucky alone, there are many repositories online. The Archives at the University of Kentucky has a site where you can search records, photographic and manuscript collections, books, maps and oral histories: www.kyvl.org. Among other things, this site features a collection of photographs made throughout the state during the Works Project Administration in the 1930s, arranged by county. The site also offers indexes for Kentucky deaths from 1911-86 and 1987-92, and  a marriage index and a divorce index for the years 1973-93

The University of Louisville Libraries Archives and Special Collections division also maintains a searchable digital collection of rare and unique images, documents and oral histories.

So, the best advice I can give you is to start at Cyndi’s List and work out from there. Narrow the scope of your search as much as possible to one person or one family, and start looking for websites that provide information from a location where they either lived or died. You’ll be amazed at what’s available. Be sure to bookmark any site where you find records or indexes, because more information is always being added. You never know when that one missing piece will become available online.

Be sure to visit county and state government websites in the where your research subject or subjects lived, to see what they have online.

As publishing these records online becomes easier and more affordable, small towns and rural areas likely will start begin adding databases too.

Happy hunting.


Phyllis McLaughlin is a professional genealogy researcher and a member of the Association of Professional Genealogists. Contact her at TwistedRootsGenealogy.com with questions or suggestions for future columns.