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# Wednesday, 03 June 2009
Researching an Ancestor's Murder
Posted by Diane

Q I found out my great-great-grandfather Juan Chavez was murdered in Valencia County, NM, in 1883, but that’s all I know. How can I find out more about this story?

A Start by thinking about the kind of records a murder might generate: death records, a coroner’s investigation, newspaper coverage, a criminal trial. Let’s take these one at a time:
  • New Mexico became a state in 1912 and didn’t mandate death certificates until 1920, so one may not exist for your ancestor. Since some counties kept vital records earlier than the state did, contact the Valencia county courthouse at Box 969, Los Lunas, NM 87031, (505) 866-2073.
  • Newspapers might have published obituaries, as well as articles about the murder, investigation and trial. New Mexico’s state archives and library have large historical newspaper collections. Subscription sites and GenealogyBank  have a few New Mexico newspapers covering 1883 in their searchable databases. Libraries in Valencia County also may have old newspapers.
  • Also look for probate records, which are created when a court distributes a deceased person’s estate. Valencia county probate court records are microfilmed at the Family History Library (you can tell by running a place search of the online catalog on the county name).
You can rent the film by visiting a Family History Center near you. First rent the index (film #2312158), and if there’s a file on your ancestor, note the packet number. Then you can request the roll of film covering that probate packet.  
  • Mysterious or violent deaths often led to a coroner’s investigation, usually part of court or police records. A search of the New Mexico state archives’ online catalog on Valencia court records brings up a listing for collection #1974-031, which has county records from 1847 to 1979. Coroners’ inquests from 1882 to 1908 are part of the justice of the peace records.
You could visit the archives in Santa Fe to search, or e-mail a research request. There may be fees associated with research requests.
  • If someone was arrested for the murder, records from a criminal trial would answer a lot of questions. The state archives’ collection #1978-003 has records for US territorial and New Mexico district courts covering Valencia County, including criminal cases from 1852 to 1912. In this collection, series V, file 13-24, covers 1852 to 1909.
These early case files aren’t numbered, and without the accused’s name, you’ll need to examine the records pretty closely to see which case involves your ancestor.

black sheep ancestors | court records | US roots
Wednesday, 03 June 2009 17:18:00 (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)  #  Comments [5]
# Tuesday, 05 May 2009
Researching Ancestors in the Direct Tax of 1798
Posted by Diane

Q. What is the direct tax of 1798, and are these records available online?

A. To fund a military buildup for a possible war with France, Congress enacted a $2 million direct tax in July 1798.

Each of the country’s 16 states had to come up with its share of the $2 million. A state’s quota was based on population, with slaves counting as three-fifths of a person. State officials created their own forms and valued property, enumerated slaves and collected the taxes.
  • Houses valued at more than $100 were taxed on the value. Since many of these homes had expensive glass windows, this is also called the “glass tax.” Some homeowners went so far as to brick over windows to reduce their homes' value.
  • Slaveowners were taxed 50 cents for each able-bodied slave age 12 to 50
  • All other real property, which included houses valued at $100 or less, was taxed at a fixed percentage of the value.
The controversial tax was repealed in 1799. Resulting records include valuations, enumerations and tax collection lists.

Because the law allowed responsibility for the tax to be transferred to other governmental departments, with no directive to forward records to Washington, many of these records have been lost. Existing records are scattered among various repositories, with Pennsylvania having a strong collection at the National Archives facility in College Park, Md.

Known 1798 direct tax lists and their physical locations are listed on the National Archives Web site.

Learn more about the Connecticut records, discovered in 2004, here.

Unfortunately, the records' varied locations means you won’t find a comprehensive online database for all types of direct tax records from all states., the Web site of the New England Historic Genealogical Society, has online databases for Massachusetts and Maine direct taxes in its subscription collection (membership starts at $75 annually). Not all towns are included—an 1800s Boston Customs House janitor was feeding the records into a fire when a clerk stopped him.

A Google search on 1798 direct tax or 1798 glass tax might net you an index to records for your ancestor’s area. That’s how we found this index for a list from Berkeley Parish, Spotsylvania County, Pa., a blogger’s list of those taxed in Bethel, Mass., and this index to a list from Tyoga Township, Lycoming County, Pa.

Genealogical publishers such as Heritage Books might have indexes in book form.

If you know of an online direct tax index or tip for finding records, click Comments (below) and post the link.

Colonial ancestors | tax records | US roots
Tuesday, 05 May 2009 16:41:00 (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)  #  Comments [2]
# Tuesday, 21 April 2009
When Your Ancestor's Records Are in Another Language
Posted by Diane

Q. Where can I get help understanding genealogy records written in my ancestors' native language?   

A. How to read foreign-language genealogy records is probably in the top 10 topics Family Tree Magazine readers ask us about. Here are some tips:

First, see if you can puzzle out meanings using the genealogy word lists on FamilySearch. (Click a letter of the alphabet to find resources for that country, then scroll down until you find the right word list.) You’ll get some background on the language and alphabet, and the words for common genealogy terms such as birth, death and names of months. This may be enough to help you read, say, a microfilmed register of baptisms.

An online translator such as Google's is handy for words or phrases. But online translators aren’t ideal for passages from historical records—languages change quickly, and online translation tools are designed for modern alphabets and usage (and even then, you'll often get pretty rough translations).

If you’re dealing with a complex document or script (Fraktur, a German script, is notoriously difficult to translate), you may need to find a translator.

In this article, researcher Nick D’Alto offers tips on hiring and working with a genealogy translator. No offense to your niece who got an A in Italian this quarter, but he advises seeking one who’s familiar with historical documents.

The Association for Professional Genealogists has a directory of professional researchers who offer translation services or have access to translators (click a name for specifics on the person’s services). Many of these folks have earned genealogical certifications and/or have references you can check.

Someone from an ethnic genealogy society (do a Google search or check Cyndi’s List to find one) may be able to help you or to recommend a translator, or you can ask members of an online forum focused on your ancestor’s homeland. A university ethnic studies department also might be able to put you in touch with a native speaker.

genealogy basics | international research | migration
Tuesday, 21 April 2009 19:40:47 (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)  #  Comments [2]
# Wednesday, 08 April 2009
How to Use PERSI for Genealogy
Posted by Diane

Q. What is PERSI and how do I use it in my family history?

A. PERSI (short for Periodical Source Index) is a database of references to articles in history and genealogy magazines and journals published in the United States and Canada as far back as 1800. (A searchable catalog of periodical titles is here.)

You can search PERSI for, say, a surname, town or topic, and results will show citations for articles related to your search term.

Examples of resources you might find using PERSI include a historical society journal article that mentions your ancestor, an out-of-print magazine about a family hometown, or a how-to magazine with hints for doing research in the old country.

Note PERSI doesn’t have the articles themselves—rather, it has the title, date and other information that will help you find the article of interest.

The PERSI database is searchable through HeritageQuest Online, a genealogy data service available free through many public libraries (check your library’s Web site or ask at the reference desk) or at Allen County, Ind., public library location. (The Allen County library’s genealogy staff compiled and updates PERSI.)

Subscription Web site also has PERSI, though its version isn’t as up-to-date as the others mentioned.

Once you find a citation for an article you want, see if the publication is available through your library or another library near you. If not, ask if the library can borrow it (or at least get photocopies) through interlibrary loan. Another option: The Allen County Public Library has the periodicals that are indexed in PERSI; you can order photocopies for a fee using the form linked on this page.

genealogy basics | printed sources
Wednesday, 08 April 2009 18:31:59 (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)  #  Comments [0]
# Wednesday, 18 March 2009
Reading Old Documents: The Long S
Posted by Diane

Q. I noticed that the hornbook pictured on page 12 of the May 2008 Family Tree Magazine has a 27-letter alphabet, with a unknown letter between r and s. What’s the story?

A. The 18th-century English hornbook shown in our May 2008 History Matters column (here’s the hornbook—it's from the Library of Congress Rare Book and Special Collections division) features a character called the long s.

The long s, which looks like a lower-case f, was common in 18th-century England and Colonial New England. It was often used as an s at the beginning or in the middle of a word (as in fentiment), or as one or both letters of a double s (congrefs).

The long s was not generally used as the final letter of a word—for that, people used the familiar short, or terminal, s.

The long s fell out of use around 1800 in England and 1820 in the United States.

For more on the long s, see Wikipedia's well-illustrated article and the book Researching Your Colonial New England Ancestors By Patricia Law Hatcher (Ancestry, $16.95).

The book is available for a limited preview in Google; I've added it to Family Tree Magazine’s Google Library for your linking convenience.

genealogy basics | printed sources | US roots
Wednesday, 18 March 2009 15:16:42 (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)  #  Comments [0]
# Thursday, 26 February 2009
Using WWII Army Enlistment Records
Posted by Diane

Q. How do I use the WWII Army Enlistment information on Footnote? I found my grandfather within seconds. There was no document image, but the source information gave box, card and reel numbers. How do I use those numbers to find the document?

A. The WWII Army enlistment records that are free on Footnote (as part of its WWII Hero Pages collection) and other genealogy database sites come from the National Archives and Records Administration’s (NARA) Access to Archival Databases (AAD) system.

Search the enlistments on AAD here. It has records of approximately 9 million men and women who enlisted in the US Army, including the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps, between 1938 and 1946.

The Army used punch cards to record the information. It microfilmed the cards after World War II, then destroyed them.

Normally, we'd advise genealogists to go right from an index or transcription to the microfilmed or paper record. But in this case, if you look at the film (which is what Footnote’s source citation numbers refer to), you’d just see cards with a series of holes in them.

NARA acquired the microfilm in 1959, and later digitized it and ran it through a “reader” to code the meaning of the punches. About 13 percent of the cards couldn’t be read due to poor microfilm quality, and an estimated 35 percent of the remaining records contain a scanning error (though NARA says few of these errors are in the name field).

I compared my own grandfather’s enlistment record on Footnote and in AAD, and both sites had the same information, though Footnote’s version is a bit easier to search and is presented in a more user-friendly format.

So what use is the information when there’s no original record to look at? The serial number, enlistment information and branch of service will help if you want to request military service records.

WWII service records are at the National Archives’ National Personnel Records Center. Due to privacy restrictions, you may need permission from your grandfather or his next of kin, or proof your grandfather is deceased. See this NPRC Web page for more details (scroll to the OMPF—Official Military Personnel Files—section). Note a large number of service records were destroyed in a 1973 fire at the NPRC.

You also can mine the enlistment record for clues to other research avenues and details to put in your grandfather’s life chronology. For example, the enlistment record can help you confirm a birth year and place, marital status, and place of residence at the time of enlistment.

It gives the person’s education level and shows how the government categorized your grandfather’s employment (my grandfather was grouped with “Messengers, errand boys, and office boys and girls”).

If some piece of information seems out of place, remember those scanning errors and look for confirmation in other records.

military records | Web tips
Thursday, 26 February 2009 15:12:41 (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)  #  Comments [0]
# Wednesday, 18 February 2009
How to Convert Old Slides to Digital
Posted by Diane

Q. I have some 35mm slides that I want to put on my computer. Also, the color on these pictures has turned red. What’s the best method to save these slides?

A. If you have a flatbed scanner, you may be able to find a special attachment for scanning slides, but these don’t always produce good results. Nowadays, you can get a slide converter, such as VuPoint’s film and slide converter or the Imagelab Instant Slide Scanner, for around $100 to $150.

See a demo of a converter here.

Alternatively, your local photo lab may be able to convert the slides for you, or you can use a service (great for large quantities) such as ScanDigital or ScanMyPhotos.

Color shifting in slides is common, says photo expert Maureen A. Taylor. “To slow the process, store color photographic materials such as prints and slides in a dark, cool place that is not subject to fluctuations in temperature and humidity. Large archives actually store their color materials in refrigerated vaults.”

Though it may not be possible to return the images to their brand-new appearance, most professional services can correct the color and remove scratch marks. Do-it-yourselfers can use photo-editing software such as Adobe PhotoShop Express (free online).

Make sure you save the unedited scans as TIF files, a format that does the best job of preserving image quality. Make copies of the images to edit. Store the edited copies as high-resolution TIFs, too. For sharing or posting online, copy the edited files as JPGs (which reduces file size).

Finally, be sure to back up your digitized images. The best way is with an online storage service.  Mozy is one; see more back-up services in PC Magazine’s online review. You also can save the files to an external hard drive kept in a location away from your home. Give copies to family, too.

Preserving Heirlooms and Photos
Wednesday, 18 February 2009 16:58:33 (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)  #  Comments [5]
# Tuesday, 03 February 2009
Which Genealogy Database Site Is Worth Your Money?
Posted by Diane

Q. How do subscription genealogy Web sites, such as, and Footnote, compare? In today's economy I want to get the most value for my money, and I can only subscribe to one.

A. When people ask us which genealogy data site is the best, our answer is “The one that has the records you need is the right one for you.”

Think about what records you’d use most, and then see which sites have them. If you’re a beginner, you’ll probably want US census and immigration records. WWI draft cards are helpful, since virtually every man born from 1872 to 1900 (and living in the US in 1917 and 1918) registered.

Newspapers and city directories can fill gaps between censuses. Did your ancestors serve in the military? See which sites have records for wars they fought in.

Also check database sites coverage of places your ancestors lived—particularly if you've progressed to international research—as well as nationalities and ethnic groups they belonged to, such as American Indian or African-American records.

Databases in major sites are way too numerous to list them all. Here’s an overview and links to learn more about each site. Make sure you verify whether a collection of interest covers the right area and time period. Sometimes a site has, say, naturalization records from certain areas or years.
  • This site has the advantage when it comes to amount of content. Major databases include US census images and indexes, passenger and border-crossing lists for US ports, WWI and WWII draft registration cards, passport applications, newspapers, and family and local histories.
To see what might be useful, go to the catalog and run a keyword search on a place your ancestors lived or a type of record. Note that database names vary—a birth index might be called “Smith County Vital Records,” “Birth Certificates, Smith County” or something else. The US deluxe membership costs $155.40 per year, $50.85 for three months or $19.95 for one month
  • The Generations Network has neglected this site, instead devoting resources to (which has records). Subscriptions range from $69.99 to $199.99, but you'll probably get more value elsewhere.
  • Footnote: This site focuses on US records, with many records from the National Archives. Civil War content is strong, including Southern Claims Commission records, the 1860 census, and ongoing scanning of Civil War soldiers’ service records and widows’ pension records. You’ll also find Revolutionary War records, naturalizations, small-town newspapers, WWII photos and more.
Subscriptions run $69.95 per year (there’s a $10 off deal this month) or $11.95 per month. Or, for most collections, you can purchase a record for $1.95. Click here to see a content listing.
  • World Vital Records: This site excels at partnering with other sites (many of them free) to aggregate content in one place. That includes Ellis Island passenger lists and immigration indexes from the Immigrant Ships Transcribers Guild and the National Archives, small-town newspapers, yearbooks, family histories, and UK censuses. Click the green View All Databases button at the top left of the home page, then select a country or record type.
The US subscription is 39.96 per year or 5.95 for a month. The World subscription is 119.40 per year or 14.95 for a month.
  • GenealogyBank: This site has a huge collection of searchable historical newspapers, books and documents. Go here to see the titles. If you take advantage of the introductory offer, the price is $69.95 per year or $19.95 for a month.
  • Major collections at this UK site include British censuses, military records and outbound passenger lists (many immigrants traveled through British ports, even if they didn’t live in Britain). Click here to see a database list.
Subscriptions range from around $21.50 for 30 days to $129 for a year. You also can pay as you go by purchasing credits (60 for $10 or 280 for $36; they’re good for a limited time) and exchanging them for record views.
  • Genline: Here, you can search virtually all Swedish church records. Its flexibility helps the budget-conscious—subscriptions range from one day ($9) to a year ($245).
For links to even more genealogy database sites, see Cyndi's List.

If you can’t fulfill all your research needs at one site, consider monthly subscriptions to multiple sites. Need only one or two collections from a site? See if you can get the information free. Many libraries offer HeritageQuest Online (federal censuses, family and local histories), NewsBank (newspapers) and ProQuest Historical Newpapers free to patrons both on-site and remotely from home.

Your library may offer on-site access to Ancestry Library Edition, a version of At a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Family History Center, you can use World Vital Records, Footnote and others. Of course, FamilySearch is adding to its record search pilot all the time, and that’s free from any computer connected to the Internet.

Readers, what genealogy database(s) would you recommend? Click Comments to tell us. See the March 2009 Family Tree Magazine for more money-saving genealogy advice.

genealogy basics | Web tips
Tuesday, 03 February 2009 18:51:00 (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)  #  Comments [7]
# Wednesday, 14 January 2009
Finding Incarcerated Ancestors
Posted by Diane

Q. My mother told us repeatedly that she thought our paternal grandfather spent time in various jails and/or prisons in the Deep South. Is there any way to track criminal incarcerations in first quarter of the 20th century without going to each individual district?

A. I don't know of any comprehensive prison indexes, though you can find a few records from individual institutions online. See Ancestor Hunt for a list. (I haven’t clicked all those links—some may go to pay sites.)

Decennial US censuses typically enumerated prisons and other institutions (you’ll see the institution’s name at the top of the return), so search for your ancestor’s name in censuses during his lifetime. Note that not everyone listed in censuses as “inmate” was in prison—people in orphanages and hospitals sometimes were called inmates.

You also could run searches of various online newspaper indexes to see if your grandfather’s name turns up in crime-related coverage.

Do you know the places he lived? If so, you could always run place searches of the Family History Library catalog to see whether it has any microfilmed prison records from those counties or states, then rent the film through a Family History Center near you. Search state archives’ Web sites and catalogs, too, as state prison records would likely be with the archives.

But it sounds like you’re taking a shot in the dark. Without a more-specific idea of when and where your grandfather may have served time, renting all that film will be time-consuming and expensive.

Aside from checking censuses and using the easily accessible online indexes mentioned above on the off chance you'll find something, your best bet is to continue your general research of your great-grandfather and other relatives. Keep your eyes open for clues. Ask cousins whether they've heard anything about your grandfather being incarcerated.

For example, my family had a similar story about my great-grandfather, and only when I got his son’s orphanage application (it mentioned the state penitentiary) did I learn when and where he was imprisoned, and where I needed to look for records.

black sheep ancestors | institutional records
Wednesday, 14 January 2009 16:46:40 (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)  #  Comments [2]
# Monday, 15 December 2008
The Tragic Tale of the 1890 Census
Posted by Diane

Q. What happened to the 1890 census? Everyone seems to skip over it when talking about census records.

A. The 1890 census is a bit of a sore subject for genealogists. Bringing it up sparks bad dreams, anguished “if only”s and anxieties over everlasting brick walls.


More than 99 percent of the records were destroyed Jan. 10, 1921, in a fire in the basement of the Commerce Building.

When the fire broke out, firefighters flooded the basement with water. The flames didn’t spread to upper floors, but the 1890 census records—piled outside a records storage vault—were soaked. (Even some of the census schedules stored inside the supposedly waterproof vault got wet.)

The cause of the blaze couldn’t be determined.

The records sat in storage for awhile, with no restoration efforts made. Rumors circulated that they’d be disposed of; various groups protesting such measures were assured the rumors were unfounded. But sometime between 1933 and 1935, the records were destroyed along with other papers the Census Bureau deemed no longer necessary.

I almost don’t want to tell you how future genealogists almost dodged this bullet: According to a 1996 article in the National Archives’ Prologue magazine  (vol. 28, no. 1), all or part of 1790 through 1880 census schedules had to be filed in county clerks' offices. But this wasn’t required in 1890; all the  schedules were forwarded to Washington, DC.

Fragments of the 1890 census bearing 6,160 names later turned up, and are viewable on microfilm. Also surviving are special 1890 schedules for half of Kentucky and states alphabetically following it, which enumerate Union veterans and their widows.

In a precursor to the 1921 tragedy, an 1896 fire badly damaged 1890 special schedules including mortality, crime, pauperism and “special classes.” They were destroyed by Department of the Interior order.

For help filling the genealogical holes left by the 1890 census, see our article on

census records
Monday, 15 December 2008 14:24:04 (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)  #  Comments [1]