Genealogy Blog

News Stories for Genealogists, March 13, 2015

13 Mar 2015

This week’s roundup of news stories of interest to genealogists includes pieces from millions of years ago in the human family tree to the Brady Bunch and S&H Green Stamps.

We start this week’s news roundup with a story from KFDA in Texas. While performing a routine installation in Fort Worth for AT&T, Scott Martin came across a large scrapbook with hundreds of pictures. Some of them dated back to the 19th century. Learn more about the book, and how Martin and his colleague were able to find a descendant of the family to return the scrapbook to, in AT&T Employee Uncovers Lost Pictures More Than a Century Old.

March is Women’s History month, and many individuals and communities are creating ways to celebrate and honor women past and present. Antoinette van Zelm has created a brochure about Rutherford County, Tennessee, called “In the Footsteps of Notable Women: A Self-guided Tour of Rutherford County.” The brochure focuses on three different areas: Community Service, Education, and Preservation, and discusses notable women, many of whom are associated with typically male locales. It is a terrific example of what can be done. Discover more of the story in Women Who Changed Local History.

This winter has certainly been the worst in a long time in many areas of the country, especially in my hometown of Boston. Rochester, New York, also had a difficult winter. One particularly stormy weekend last month the Democrat & Chronicle tried to bring relief by reminding residents of times where it was even worse, including Lake Ontario freezing over from shore to shore, which does not happen frequently to one of the Great Lakes. Read about it 5 of the Most Miserable Days in Local History.

The human family tree has been redrawn, with changes from a new discovery. National Geographic reports that a fossil found in Ethiopia shows that modern humans (the genus Homo) arrived in East Africa almost a half-million years earlier than previously thought. Learn more about the family tree of Homo Sapiens and where we came from in Oldest Human Fossil Found, Redrawing Family Tree.


Green Stamps


Finally comes a blast from the more recent past. Those of us of a certain age remember Sperry and Hutchinson. For years they provided Green Stamps when shopping at gas stations and supermarkets. Then we pasted the stamps into book, which could be redeemed from a catalogue. They were so much a part of the culture that they were parodied in an early episode of The Brady Bunch, where the kids had to decide what to purchase with the stamps. This was a common problem in families across America. What you may not know, however, is that you can still redeem your S&H Green Stamps. Discover how in Surprise! S&H Green Stamps Can Still Be Redeemed.

When Searching Databases Doesn’t Work

12 Mar 2015

The twenty-first century genealogist would not be able to research as effectively without the plethora of databases available online, especially those that provide access to images of the originals. But there are cautions to be aware of in order to take the best advantage of the information in these databases, which often can be hidden. When searching databases doesn’t work, sometimes we must turn to manual methods to find the information we seek.

The first thing to be aware of is how databases are created. Where does the information come from? How does it become a database? These databases are either “born digital” or they are converted from a physical original. Databases that are born digital are as accurate as those that created the original digital data, which tends to be highly accurate.

Databases created by converting from physical originals are liable to have more errors in them, introduced during the conversion process. This process usually takes one of two forms. The first is a manual process that has people keying the information into a computer. The best databases area created in a “double blind” system. This means that two (or more) people key the data into a spreadsheet or database, and they are compared. Differences between the two are reviewed by a third individual to arbitrate a final decision.

The second process is an automated one where computers use Optical Character Recognition software to process digital images. This software turns image files into searchable text. By linking that text to an image, companies create searchable databases of image files. Unfortunately, OCR can be impacted by a number of factors, especially the clarity of the text in the original image. When the original is faded or difficult to read, the text can be a misread or unread, and doesn’t make it into the database. Thus, when you search these databases, you may not get a result even if the information was originally there.

If you can browse the database, then you can sometimes find the information by reading through manual. This is especially helpful for finding information in newspapers, where you might have the date of an event and can read through looking for the information.

Another thing to beware of is that different websites may use the same source for data. This will perpetuate the problem amongst various sources.

I was reminded of this problem recently when I was working on my Franklin project and trying to find a death notice. The man was a merchant, and should have had a notice, but none came up in searches of various online newspaper databases. I found a reference to a published death notice, and even though I searched three different websites that held the newspaper, none produced the result.


Illegible obituary from an eighteenth-century newspaper, found only by manually reading, not searching.

Illegible obituary from an eighteenth-century newspaper, found only by manually reading, not searching.


One of the sites allowed me to browse, so I navigated directly to the date and found the death notice. As soon as I saw it, I understood why I could not find it in a search. Either the original scan was terribly bad, or the newspaper in the original was very faded. But the death notices of this issue were very difficult to read, and in some places entirely illegible, including the person I was looking for. No OCR program could ever have discerned the name. It was only because I knew what I was looking for that I was able to find it myself.

Despite the tremendous advantages of searchable databases, there are times when we must return to the tried and true methods of manual searching. We may be using digital images instead of microfilm or books, but reading through materials is still often the only way to find the information we need.

Middle Names as a Genealogy Research Tool

10 Mar 2015

Happy Middle Name Pride Day! The origins of this day are shrouded in mystery, and there is disagreement over the actual day it should be celebrated, but the day was created to honor our “middle” names. These names can help us in a number of ways as genealogists, so we should be pleased to celebrate this day.

During the eighteenth century in America, middle names were sometimes used, but they were not very common. Amongst the member of the Constitutional Convention in 1787, only 15% of the delegates used a middle name (or middle initial). Other famous men of the time with middle names include Richard Henry Lee and John Quincy Adams.

It is during the 19th century, however, that middle names came into more common use. Middle names, or even a middle initial, can be very helpful in distinguishing between different individuals with the same name. But one must be careful in researching. Individuals with different middle names or middle initials can easily be distinguished from one another. But, an individual my have a middle name, but not use it all the time. So the lack of a middle name or initial in a record is not conclusive proof.


John Quincy Adams, named for his great-grandfather, John Quincy. (from Wikimedia Commons).

John Quincy Adams, named for his great-grandfather, John Quincy. (from Wikimedia Commons).


Middle names come from different sources. One must be careful about interpreting the names. For example, sometimes it appears that a middle name might come from a surname. Sometimes the name may come from the maiden name of the mother. But other times it may be further back. For example, John Quincy Adams’ mother was named Abigail Smith, daughter of William Smith and Elizabeth Quincy. One might be quick to think that JQA’s middle name come from his maternal grandmother. In truth, he was name for Elizabeth’s father (his great-grandfather), John Quincy. Both his first and middle names came from the ancestor.

Take care, however, when looking at individuals who have names that derive from famous individuals. Throughout the nineteenth century can find individuals named Benjamin Franklin Smith or George Washington Smith. These individuals were likely named to honor the famous individuals, but rarely do they indicate a familial relationship.

Other clues can be taken from middle names. For example, the infamous outlaw John Wesley Hardin was, unsurprisingly, a son of a Methodist preacher. Lorenzo Dow was an itinerate preacher in the early nineteenth century, and an important individual in the Second Great Awakening. In the first half of the century one finds many individuals named Lorenzo Dow as their first and middle names. My full name is Michael John Leclerc. My middle names comes not from any family members, but from John F. Kennedy, who died nine months before I was born.

5 Things Mr. Spock Taught Me About Genealogy

07 Mar 2015



The world got a whole lot smaller last week. The death of Leonard Nimoy hit me like the death of a friend. I’ve been following the adventures of Star Trek, in all of its incarnations, since I was a boy in the 1960s. Perhaps it was because of the amazing message of humanism that is incorporated into the show that I so identify with. Certainly no other television show in history can be said to have influenced us as much as Star Trek, inspiring countless individual over the last half-century. And although all seven of the original characters were critical to the success of the show, it is Mr. Spock as the backbone of the triumvirate that lead the team (the other two being Captain Kirk and Doctor McCoy) who is perhaps the most pivotal. His character is the only one to have appeared in the series starting with the original pilot, through to the Next Generation series, and into the modern reboot by J.J. Abrams.

And it was the Nimoy’s portrayal of Spock that made such a difference. Nimoy himself was an incredibly talented individual. Not only as an actor, but a producer, director, poet, photographer, and tremendous supporter of people. Spock’s signature phrase was “Live Long and Prosper.” Nimoy identified with this phrase so much that he often used it, along with the acronym LLAP. And perhaps the best that can be said of him is that in the end, he certainly did.

Spock had many words of wisdom through the years. And many of these are very helpful to us in our genealogical research. Following are a few of my favorite things I learned about genealogy from Mr. Spock.


“Insufficient facts always court danger.” ~ Space Seed
One of our biggest challenges is not to make assumptions. Unfortunately, genealogists often create theories, which take on a life of their own without sufficient evidence to back them up. It is critical to find as many records as possible with as much evidence as possible to support our theories and turn them into facts.


“No. ‘Fascinating’ is a word I use for the unexpected. In this case, I should think ‘interesting’ would suffice.” ~ Squire of Gothos
One of Spock’s most famous catch phrases is herein explained in a discussion with Dr. McCoy in the is episode. Here Spock shows the important of language, and that words can have specific meanings. The same is true in genealogical research. Words may not mean what you think they do. It is important not to assign your own definitions to them, even if you think you are correct (I would say, “especially if you think they are correct”). It is important to understand the nature of the records you are examining to determine what, exactly, the words within them mean, given the context of the time and place in which they were used. For example, the word gay can mean happy, but it can also mean homosexual. Context is everything.


“May I say that I have not thoroughly enjoyed serving with humans? I find their illogic and foolish emotions a constant irritant.” ~ Day of the Dove
How often in your research have you come across something odd or intriguing about your ancestors? Something that causes you to think “Why did they do that?” Often we humans act in logical and though-out ways; often, but not always. When following a migration route, perhaps, we might find some odd directions that the family took. Sometimes we can use logic to figure it out, but sometimes their actions defy logic. Perhaps it was an emotional decision, trying to avoid people or places. Perhaps they went there because of people they knew there. Or perhaps it was just the way they decided to go for no particular reason. Think about some of the things you’ve done in your own life. Have you always behaved logically and made logical decisions? Stop trying to enforce it on your ancestors, then.


“In critical moments, men sometimes see exactly what they wish to see.” ~ The Tholian Web
Few greater errors are there than reading a record expecting it tot say something. Often we can turn the record into meaning what we want it to mean, but that doesn’t make it correct. It is important to take a step back sometimes and reevaluate our evidence. Did we miss an important clue? Did we dismiss some piece of conflicting information too cavalierly? Go back and look again to be certain that you haven’t misinterpreted something, or forgotten to check a particular record set because it was too easily dismissed.


“I have been, and always shall be, your friend.” ~ Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
One of the most heart-wrenching scenes in the entire Star Trek canon is Spock’s death scene in the Wrath of Khan movie. I remember the tears being shed with the good friend I went to see the movie with when it was originally released. Friends are important. And no less so in genealogy. Our genealogy friends understand our madness. They are also an important sounding board for us, listening to us and offering advice on how to attack problems. They are also a great place to turn to for help in testing out theories. I wouldn’t be half the genealogist I am today without all that I have learned from my friends throughout the years. And, on top of it all, they just make genealogy more fun!

The Sixth Victim of the Boston Massacre

05 Mar 2015

235 years ago today occurred one of the seminal events in American History. Festering tensions in Boston erupted one evening with British soldiers murdering civilians. Members of the Sons of Liberty were quick to take advantage of the situation, and thus was born the Boston Massacre.

King Street was the longest street in colonial Boston. It stretched from the Towne House all the way down past the customs house and down the Long Wharf. The Towne House was the seat of government for the Massachusetts Bay Colony. In June of 1767 the British Parliament passed the Townshend Acts, increasing taxes on the Colonies. Over the course of the next eighteen months tensions in Boston got higher and higher.

In the fall of 1768, Parliament started sending British regulars to occupy Boston and protect the Crown’s interests. They sent 4,000 troops; approximately one soldier for every five residents. The troops were not received well by the inhabitants, and the redcoats were treated very poorly. They managed to make life quite difficult for the soldiers.

By the waning days of winter in 1770, tensions were sky high. Trouble began on the night of February 22. Ebenezer Richardson, a Loyalist, caused a scene when trying to burn an effigy outside of a merchant’s shop. A mob gathered and he fled to his house. As the mob began to move towards his house, Richardson shot randomly from indoors. One of the shots killed eleven-year-old Christopher Snider. This incident fanned the fames of fury amongst Bostonians.

On March 5 a crowd gathered at the Towne House on King Street. Samuel Adams, among others, called for the demonstration against the troops guarding the customs commissioners. The scene turned into a near riot. Captain Thomas Preston and his troops tried to bring order, but things quickly turned to chaos. Shots were fired by British soldiers and three men were dead on the scene, while others died later.

History class often discusses the five victims of the Boston Massacre. The first to die, and the most well-remembered, is Crispus Attucks. He was a fugitive slave who worked as a seaman. John Gray, a ropemaker and veteran Boston brawler , and 17-year-old sailor James Caldwell also died at the scene. Samuel Maverick was also 17 years old when he was shot that night. He died the next morning. Irish Immigrant Patrick Carr was the next to die. He lingered for more than a week and died on March 14th. The doctor who tended him later testified that Carr did not blame the soldiers and felt that they had fired in self-defense.

Captain Preston was brought to trial for the killings, along with eight of his men. Preston was defended by John Adams, and was acquitted. Six of his men were also acquitted, but two more were convicted of murder, but escaped punishment by invoking a Medieval defense. The trials were also the first time the concept of “reasonable doubt” was used in America.


Image of the marker for Boston Massacre victims in the Granary Burying Ground.

Image of the marker for Boston Massacre victims in the Granary Burying Ground.


Snider and the five who died that March are buried together in the Granary Burying Ground in downtown Boston. A marker is placed there to honor their memory. Unfortunately, in an effort to “beautify” the cemetery in the mid-nineteenth century, grave markers there were rearranged and (with the exception of the large tombs) it is no longer possible to correlate a marker with the exact burial location of anyone.

In addition, there was another victim of the Massacre. Christopher Monk was also shot that night, and was severely injured. He was never able to work again, but the citizens of Boston always cared for him. It took him ten long years, but he finally succumbed to his injuries in April 1780. His death notice in the Continental Journal and Weekly Advertiser of April 20 reads: “Died. Mr. CHRISTOPHER MONK, who has been long languishing under the wounds he receiv’d on the evening of the fifth of March, 1770, by a party of British mercenaries, under the command of Capt Thomas Preston. His funeral will be attended this afternoon.” [emphasis in the original]. Although it is known he is buried in the Granary Burying Ground, there is no surviving marker, and the exact location of his burial is unknown.

To find out more about the Boston Massacre, and its significance in American History, visit the Boston Massacre Historical Society.

5 Nineteenth-Century Women Are Still Alive

04 Mar 2015

March 5, 1898, was a Saturday. The port of New York welcomed 495 aliens at Ellis Island. The men on board the S.Y. Beligica, an expedition from Belgium to Antarctica, were trapped in the ice. Victoria sat on the throne of Great Britain. The front page of the New York Times discussed a court of inquiry that left the previous evening for Havana to investigate the destruction of the battleship Maine in the harbor there two weeks previously. And in the city of Osaka, Japan, a Kimono maker’s wife gave birth to a little girl named Misao. Little did the girl’s parents know that she would make history — simply by living. Today, 5 nineteenth-century women are still alive and well.


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Misao Okawa is currently the oldest person in the world, with a documented birth date of March 5, 1898. She has been a widow for 84 years, after her 12-year marriage ended with the death of her husband. Two of her three children are still living in their 90s. But Misao is not the only person to have the distinction of living in three centuries.

There are currently five individuals alive who can document their birth prior to the year 1900, all of them women. Interestingly three of the five are from the United States, and all three were born in the South.

Gertrude Weaver was born just months after Misao, on the Fourth of July 1898, in Arkansas. She was married 100 years ago and had four children, only one of whom is still living. She still lives in Arkansas, in the small city of Camden in the southern part of the state.

Jeralean Talley was born in the tiny town of Montrose in central Georgia on May 23, 1899. In 1935 she moved to the Detroit suburb of Inkster where she married and had a single child. She and her husband were married for more than 50 years when he died in 1988. Her family now includes three grandchildren, ten great-grandchildren, and four great-great-grandchildren. She lives with her daughter, and continues to be active, still bowling when she was 104, mowing the law at 105, and still goes on an annual fishing trip with friends.

Susan Mushatt Jones was born in Alabama July 6, 1899. She graduated from a private boarding school there, and was accepted to the Turkeegee Institute, but her parents could not afford to pay the tuition. Instead, she moved to New York City in 1923, lured by the Harlem Renaissance. With no children of her own, she helped to put four of her nieces through college. Her personal splurge is high-end lace lingerie, which took her doctor by surprise.

Emma Morano is the oldest living person in Europe. She was born in Italy in the waning days of the nineteenth century, on November 29, 1899. She married in 1926. Her only child was born in 1937 and died six months later. The following year she and her husband separated, but they were never officially divorced.

While others around the world claim to be born in the nineteenth century, these are the only five who have documentation to prove it. These women are all quite used to being asked variations on the question “What’s the secret to living so long?” My favorite response is Gertrude’s, who told Time magazine: “Treat people right and be nice to other people the way you want them to be nice to you.” USA Today profiled each of these women Yes, 5 People Born in the 1800s are Still With Us.

Protecting Your Donated Collections

02 Mar 2015

Genealogists spend years and decades building our collections. We have records about our ancestors, mostly copies but many originals. We often acquire papers and objects from other family members, as they know that we are the family historian. Genealogists are often voracious readers as well, and we often amass great numbers of books. I know genealogists who have actually put an addition onto their home simply to have more space for the genealogical materials. The question is, how to ensure your materials are preserved, and protecting your donated collections.

Private residences are not the best places to ensure the long-term survival of your materials. One of the biggest dangers is fire, as few homes are equipped with fire suppression systems. Accidents happen, many beyond the control of the homeowner, and all of your precious items can be gone in only a few minutes. Private homes are also, for the most part, equipped with archival atmospheric conditions. Rare is the home that remains at a constant temperature throughout the year, and even those that do tend to be warmer than the optimal preservation conditions for documents.

The best way to ensure that your collections will be preserved and made available to future generations is to donate them to a repository. These are libraries, archives, museums, and other organizations that will take the proper steps to properly preserve your collections and make them available to future generations. When making a donation, families will often make a financial donation as well. This can help to cover the costs of processing the materials to make them available so that researchers can access them more quickly.

When you make a donation, you can do so with restrictions. For example, some people donate materials with the restriction that information about living people cannot be accessed for 50 years. Restrictions can also be placed on financial donations as well. You can donate funds and delineate exactly what they can (and cannot) be used for.

It is important to know, however, that institutions are more and more frequently disregarding these restrictions. They are choosing to intentionally disregard the restrictions in favor of their own plans. Sometimes they will even go to court to have restrictions removed. The Boston Globe recently ran a story on Gordon College, a Christian school here in Massachusetts, that is trying to see part of a collection that was intended to remain intact. They have had many difficulties in the last year, and this latest controversy is only adding to them.


Donation Changes


So be aware that in the end, your restrictions may not count for much. Of course, you could always try inserting language into your donation agreement that states that any attempt by the institution to make changes to your donations will result in the donation being revoked and the materials and finances removed to another institution of your choice. One of the best ways to ensure that your intentions are known is to incorporate them into your will. This ensures that a copy of your wishes goes on permanent file where it can always be accessed, and make it more difficult for institutions to ignore your wishes.

Blog Posts and News for Genealogists, February 27, 2015

27 Feb 2015

This week’s genealogy news combines news from genealogists as well as non-genealogists. Paula Stuart-Warren warns us about shortchanging ourselves in our research. Leland Meitzler tells us of the discovery of a 700-year-old document. We find out how an amateur researcher has identified the bodies of two War of 1812 casualties. We also learn how historical fiction, although it is fiction, can still help us in our research. And finally, we get some advice on moving past family secrets from the host of Finding Your Roots, Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

Paula Stuart-Warren has some great advice for genealogists this week. Have you checked to be certain you are adding the correct name to your tree? Have you transcribed yoru documents? Do you know the origins of the materials in your files? Do you say you have brick wall problem even though your only research has been online, ignoring the vast resources not available on the Internet that could answer your questions? Get more suggestions in Attention Genealogists? Are you Shortchanging Your Family History?

Leland Meitzler had a very interesting story recently that dates back 700 years! Back in the 19th century a Victorian official at the British Museum pasted a document a into a scrapbook. The catch? The document was an copy of the Magna Carta that was created less than a hundred years after the original. Read more and get a link to the original story in Original Copy of the Magna Carta Dating to 1300 Found in Scrapbook.


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William Krecji works at the Perry International Memorial, which highlights the battles led by Oliver Hazard Perry during the war of 1812, especially the Battle of Lake Erie. Not long after the battle, the bodies of two men washed up on the Ohio shore. They had no identification, so were buried without names. Two hundred years later, Krecji believes he has identified the two men. Discover more details in Mystery Solved of Two American Seamen’s Bodies Washed Ashore to Ohio from War of 1812: My Ohio.

Susan Doak of the Southwest Nebraska Genealogical Society wrote an interesting piece this week for the McCook Gazette. Like many genealogists she is a voracious reader, and she talks about using this to her advantage in her genealogical research. While many of us might be quick to dismiss historical fiction as not helpful because of its fictional nature, Susan shows us how some if can actually be quite valuable, if used properly. Find out how in Using Historical Novels in Genealogy Research.

Finally this week is a piece by Meaghan Siekman from the New England Historic Genealogical Society, working with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. They answer a letter written to Professor Gates by a college student at Clarion University She has a class assignment to create a family tree, but is having difficulty because of family secrets. Her grandfather never talked about his family, and ended up abandoning her brandmother and their children, although they never divorced. With a life that is a complete mystery, she wonders how to get further back. They give her some advice on how to search a little bit differently to find some answers. Get their advice in Help! I Can’t Fill Out My Family Tree Because of Family Secrets.

Guide to New York Genealogical Research Now Available

24 Feb 2015

One of the great pleasures of attending conferences is going to the exhibit halls where vendors cram their stands with the latest in books, software, services, organization memberships, and other products. Unfortunately, our stand in the hall was so busy that I barely had a chance to leave this time, so I did not get to explore as much as I usually do. But I know that one of the biggest successes in the exhibit hall was the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society’s new guide to New York genealogical research.

Awhile back I wrote about the book as it was going off to the printer. The printed books have now arrived, and the NYG&B completely sold out the stock they brought with them to Roots Tech. Three years in the making, this book is the Bible for researching your family anywhere in the state of New York. Whether your family was part of the early Dutch settlers, migrated to or through New York from New England after the American Revolution, or lived in New York City after migrating from Europe, this book will help your research.

The New York Family History Research Guide and Gazetteer is truly a collaborative effort. The project has included the work of more than 100 individuals as authors, editors, contributors, reviewers, and production people. The result is an 840-page masterwork (including a 30-page index) that provides everything you need to know about researching in the Empire State. Included in this group is Ruth A. Carr (former head of the Milstein Research Division at the New York Public Library), Laura Murphy Degrazia, Karen Jones, Henry Hoff, Terry Koch-Bostic, Anita Lustenberger, Suzanne McVetty, and Jane Wilcox. [note.: I also served as a reviewer and contributor on the book, but I would be equally excited about it had I never participated in the project.] The historians for every county provided assistance in verifying information for their areas. The single most significant contributor, however is Harry Macy, Jr. Former editor of the New York Genealogical and Biographical Record, Harry is widely recognized as the dean of New York genealogical research. He edited and reviewed the book multiple times as it was being compiled.


NY Research Guide


Part One has seventeen chapters on researching: Colonial Era; Vital Records; Census Records; Immigration, Migration, and Naturalization; Court Records; Probate Records; Land Records and Maps; Military Records; Cemetery Records; Business, Institutional, Organizational Records; City Directories and Other Directories; Newspapers and Periodicals; Tax Records; Peoples of New York; Religious Records of New York; National and Statewide Repositories & Resources; and Reference Shelf for New York Research.

Part Two contains guides to every county in the state. For each county there is:

  • A cover page with maps of the county
  • Gazetteer of past and present place names
  • Repositories and resources for that county
  • Selected bibliography and further reading
  • Online resources

The counties are listed in alphabetical order, with the exception of the New York City counties. Because the five counties from the city are so intrinsically linked to each other, Bronx, Kings, New York, Queens, and Richmond counties are grouped together at the end of the county section. There is also a separate section for resources specific to Long Island. The thirty-page index cross-references all of the place names listed in the county gazetteers.

The book is now available from the NYG&B at three price levels. Members of the society can purchase the book for $65. Libraries and societies can purchase it for $75. Non-members can purchase it fro $85. Keep in mind that the member discount covers almost 30% of an annual membership. You might consider joining the society for a year to explore other valuable membership benefits. Get more information and order the book at

5 Free Resources for Identifying Locations

21 Feb 2015


One of the most important parts of researching your ancestors is locating them. Knowing where they lived is the critical first part. Without this, it is impossible to find other records. Here are five free resources for identifying locations your ancestors may have lived.

Getty Thesaurus of Geographic Names
The Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles has a mission “to further knowledge and to advance understanding of the visual arts.” As part of their work, the institute has created a database of names from around the world. Although the purpose is to aid art historians and catalogers in their work, it is available online for anyone to use.

Geographic Names Information System
The GNIS was created by the United States Geological Survey and the United States Board on Geographic Names. It contains information about current and historical “physical and cultural geographic features” in the United States. Locations are defined by state, county, USGS topographic map, and geographic coordinates.

USGS Historical Topgraphic Map Explorer
This is another great project of the U.S. Geological Survey. The USGS creates the official topographic maps for the entire nation. They have taken historical maps through current maps and loaded them onto a website. Simply enter a location, then select a map year from the timeline. Maps date back to 1890.

USMA Library Digital Collections
The United States Military Academy has a long history at West Point dating back to 1802. The library has extensive collections of maps, many predating the founding of the academy. Now many of these are available for free to use as part of the library’s digital collections effort. The viewer allows users to zoom in to examine the maps in great detail in a very legible manner.

Norman B. Leventhal Map Center
The Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library has extensive cartographic holdings dating back to the 15th century. The center holds 5,000 atlases and 200,000 historical maps. As part of preservation efforts, many of these maps are being digitized and made available online.