Of course everyone knows about Ancestry.com. It’s a great place to crowd-source your family history. But often it is difficult to find your ancestor and sometimes other people’s slap-dash research style ends up kicking you in the pants because they enter the same person three times under slightly different spellings and you end up with extra people on your tree.
So here are a few resources that aren’t necessarily on the beaten path but are far more reputable than randos on the internet.
1. Census Records
Ancestry.com is essentially census records, war records, and other government records that are perfectly open to the public (so why do we need to pay Ancestry.com to use them?) You can access census records on the National Archives of course. Records up to 1940 have been released to the public. (1950 and later, as I’ve come to realize, are as yet not available in their entirety due to privacy laws. Wish I would have known that two years ago when I literally spent hours trying to find my great grandparents after 1940…)
Censusfinder.com also allows you to search and access census records without buying a subscription. My colleague uses it all the time at work to dive into deep research holes on particular individuals to figure out who they were and what their lives were like. You really can learn a lot about a person from a census record.
2. Local Museums and Libraries
There ain’t nothing like turning through microfiche and finding the tiny details you can only discover when looking at a document in context. Local museums have birth records, death records, newspapers, magazines, and more all on microfiche. You can also access paper records. While many museums are working on digitizing their collections, they don’t typically spend the time to log the kinds of records relevant to our specific families. So we get to enjoy the thrill of the search. Filling out that record request, waiting for the box to arrive… Opening that box to that glorious old-paper scent… Reading, searching, interpreting, and finding (or not finding) what you were looking for (or finding something better!)
One of the last times I went searching for sources for work, I found an oral history of a Mexican-American woman’s memories in St. Paul during the 20th century. The recording was all in Spanish but the summary mentioned her husband was in World War II. I requested his Bonus records and found that he had been seized by a fellow St. Paulite as a draft dodger only three years after he had immigrated from Mexico. Not a citizen (and therefore not obligated to respond to the call of the draft) I wonder if his lack of English was what landed him in an outrageous misunderstanding that kept him in military service to the American government against his will. He was released a year later honorably at the pleasure of the US government. And yet… he never got his bonus because he was an “alien.” ARE YOU KIDDING ME?!
These kinds of stories are the ones that don’t often end up online. And don’t you think these stories should be uncovered?
3. Digital Newspapers Collection
Newspapers are a wonderful way to get an idea of what life was like the past. You can see current events but they’re placed in context of community events, social pages, advertisements, and classifieds. My favorite digital newspapers collection is on the Minnesota Historical Society’s webpage. The new application is keyword searchable to my endless delight. It has all of the major municipal publications but also has lots of ethnic community papers like the Appeal, the Tomahawk, and Svenska Amerikanska Posten … too bad I can’t read Swedish.
For those not in Minnesota, the Library of Congress has a massive online collection of digitized newspapers from across the country. Chronicling America has comprehensive search functions and tons of great broadsides.
4. Sanborn Fire Maps
This is one of those things you can find at specific sites. At my work, we can access online searchable insurance maps that you can track down your address and see exactly what was on your property. It is SO COOL. And you can also track down the addresses that you found for your relatives in the ♫ census records ♫ !!!!
And then you can compare them to bird’s eye view maps and see what the buildings looked like!
I love maps.
5. Your Relatives, Of Course
There is nothing like the stories and details your relatives can tell you. And the best thing about genealogy is that the farther back you’re searching, the more second cousins you have to tap for sources.
Photographs are of course amazing. My grandma has been a wealth of resources when it comes to photos of GG Loney. And I got access to the Mystic house, with it’s photos, genealogy trees, family recipes, and historic landmark status through my dad’s cousins who live in Texas that I found over Ancestry.com. My interview with my great aunt revealed so many important details about GG Kingsley that I never would have gotten without talking to her.
I’ve found especially with women’s history that there is so much that goes unrecorded in the course of women’s lives. The oral histories, the stories that are passed down through the generations, are often the only places to find complexity and these stories don’t really get told anymore unless you ask the right questions.