Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Reading Handwritten Records

Next to impossible to read handwriting. Using abbreviations that no one else understands. Who knew census takers and doctors would have so much in common? If you've ever had *just a little bit of trouble* deciphering handwritten records, including census sheets and vital records, hopefully this post will offer some helpful tips.

First of all, let's start with the shorthand that census takers often used that follows absolutely no known rules of English (or any other language, for that matter). Unfortunately, many census takers in the United States, especially in the 1800s and early 1900s, would abbreviate first names rather regularly. Men's names were most often butchered in this manner, but women's names were also fair game. The most common male name abbreviations are: Wm, Geo, Jas, Jno, Thos, Jos, Fredk, Alexr, and Ferdd. Women's names that I've seen shortened are Mgt and Kath or Cath, although I'm sure there are more that I haven't come across, yet. In addition, many census takers would make matters worse by writing all of the letters in the abbrevation in normal size handwriting font, while the last letter would typically be written like a square root sign -- smaller and in the upper right corner after the other letters. The name below taken from an 1870 United States census is probably Frederick.

While we can guess at the meaning of the abbreviations, don't ever assume the exact name based on a census record alone. Always look for primary sources to back up your theories. For example, Wm probably means William. Geo probably means George. What about Jno? It could be John or Jonathan. Jos could stand for Joseph or Josiah. Mgt is probably Margaret, but it could also be Margaretha or some other similar spelling. Ed. below is most likely short for Edward or Edmund.

Another important piece of info to keep in mind is that handwriting was not completely standardized until more recently in history. In other words, one census taker's handwriting may look completely different than another's chicken-scratch (I mean, record). For this reason, the most helpful tip I can offer is to look at any letters you are having trouble deciphering in the context of the rest of the word and in context with the other handwriting on the page. For example, if you can't tell whether the first letter of a man's name is J or T, look at the rest of the name first. If the rest of the letters look like homas, the first letter is most likely a T. If the rest of the name itself doesn't give you any clues, look at the handwriting on the rest of the page. Is there another obvious J or T on the page? Compare those to the letter you are having trouble deciphering. Again, I must stress that you cannot rely on census records alone for the exact name spelling. Always try to find a primary source record. If you are looking at a handwritten marriage certificate, unfortunately that is your source record. In this case, try and find another record to verify what you are seeing, such as a birth record, death record, or several census years in a row.

Finally, although handwriting was not always uniform among census takers, certain trends do show up. The most common one that trips people up in reading old records is that a double ss in a word, such as Jessica, could be written in cursive with a double ss as we're used to seeing it or as an fs. In the image below, the last name is Strauss, although it looks like Straufs.

Capital S and L were so similar for most handwritten records that you might need to look at context of the word or rest of the page for subtle differences that will differentiate the two. Capital J's will often look like capital G's or Y's or even T's. Again, context clues will be your best bet in deciphering what the letters actually are.

If you still run into a particularly difficult record, one last suggestion would be to get at least one more pair of eyes looking at it. After long hours of staring at a particular page or image, another person can come in with a fresh perspective and perhaps see what you are missing. Especially in genealogical research, a collaborative effort can be far more effective than any individual could otherwise be.

These tips are in no way meant to be exhaustive. In fact, as you spend more time in your research looking at handwritten records, the quicker and more comfortable you'll be in figuring out the vital information written on them. Happy deciphering!

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Old McDonald was an Irish Farmer?

I've been working for the past couple of years as a volunteer indexer and arbitrator for the Family Search Indexing project being done by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. (See my previous post about the New Family Search for more details on the project.) As I've gone through thousands and thousands of United States census records, it is extremely clear that names can provide big clues to your ancestor's country of origin.

America is a big melting pot. Most of us who are more than first or second-generation Americans have a mix of ancestral origins from more than one country. If we meet someone for the first time, and we discover their last name is Johnson, most of us don't think "Wow, he must definitely have some Scandinavian blood in him." Of course, then again, too many Americans believe that Barack Hussein Obama's middle name MUST make him Arab. That is an incorrect conclusion to leap to simply on the basis of his name. (Disclaimer: This is not a plug for any political candidate.)

However, having said that, back in the 1800's and early 1900's in America, an individual's name could be a huge clue to where someone's family immigrated from. Of course, most of the US census years asked for each person's birthplace, so if you found an ancestor that was an immigrant, the birthplace field would tell you right away a fact about your heritage. What if you haven't yet traced a line back to the immigrant ancestor, though? What if you are looking at the first or successive generations who were born in America? This is where the names start to give us something to go on.

For example, Irish names can be very easy to spot. Common Irish surnames began with Mc, O', or Fitz, such as McDonald, O'Brien, or Fitzpatrick. Irish first names from these time periods tended to be good, strong Catholic names, such as Patrick, Thomas, and John. Or Bridget, Sarah or Mary for women's names.

German names are hard to spell and say, but are easy to weed out. Gustav, Augustus, Herman, and Frederick were common male names. Girls were often given names like Mathilde, Fredricka, Augusta, etc. Witbeck (a surname in my line) and Hoschouer are examples of Germanic surnames.

Italian monikers included Giuseppe, Luigi, Victoria, Rosina, and Emilia. Of course, we've all seen the Godfather, so we know that Italian last names are just as telling as the first names: Marinelli, Logar and Pensa are just a few Italian surnames in my husband's line.

How about Scandinavian countries? Well, at the risk of repeating information you probably already know, these surnames were based on the child's father's first name and appended with son or datter (daughter). For example, if you had an ancestor named Olaf, and his last name were Oleson, it's likely his father's first name was Ole. And Olaf might have had a sister named Britta Olesdatter. Other examples of Scandinavian names are Jonson, Knuteson, Olafson, Nelson, etc. These names make it harder to trace parentage as the surname changed every generation, but they make it easy to spot Scandinavian ancestry in America during the 19th and 20th centuries. Common first names include Kerstin, Britta and Marit for girls, and Axel, Per or Carl for boys.

Eastern European names also had much in common. Anton, Ladislav, Stanislaus, Frank, Mary, Nettie, and Elsie crop up frequently in census records. Pejsa, Chanda, and Choura are some of the Czechoslovakian surnames in my line.

Oddly enough, the more English sounding the name, the harder it might be to guess the surname's origin. And remember, it is still an assumption until you find other sources to back up your hunches.

In addition, looking at a census record and finding that you had an ancestor born in America whose name was Don Vito Corleone doesn't guarantee that he will be of Italian descent (or a mobster, for that matter), but it is one more clue that can lead you in the right direction to tracing your genealogical lines farther back and eventually finding your ancestral homelands.

Update on Photo Digitizing

I decided to post an update to my previous blog entry about affordable photo and slide digitizing. A blog reader left me a comment with some more information on various companies that handle scanning and digitizing of photos, negatives, and slides.

For the purposes of my first post, I only listed one company, ScanCafe. This was simply because this was a company that I had personally used for digitizing services. I was happy with their service, their prices and their process, so I blogged about it. It wasn't meant to be a blogging advertisement for ScanCafe, nor a negative review of any other digitizing services.

As mentioned, one of my readers (another digitizing company, from what I can tell) posted in his comment a link that lists a comparison sheet of all of the available companies that offer these services on the Internet. The sheet actually does seem very accurate, so it would be a good tool to use if you are trying to compare the various services and pricing offered by several companies.

I want to include that link here so you can check it out yourself. If you use any of the companies for digitizing services besides ScanCafe, you can send me an email or leave a comment on my blog about your experience and your opinion on the company.

Signing off for now,


Monday, September 8, 2008

New Family Search and More Free Genealogy Records

This is not really new news in the online genealogy world, but I did want to blog a little about the New Family Search web site
that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is working on right now. In case you haven't already heard, the church is working on digitizing the millions of records they have on microfiche, microfilm and paper to make them available online to anyone in the world for free. What a project!

Here's how it works:
1 - The church has employees and volunteers in Salt Lake City scanning in and digitizing thousands upon thousands of images, including census records, vital records, state indexes, family histories, and pretty much anything else in their collection that they are able to share (because of copyright issues).
2 - Thousands of volunteers throughout the world, speaking many languages and including both members of the church and those not of the church, work every day on creating indexes for these images. This has to be done to make the information in the records searchable and organized.
3 - As the volunteers finish the indexing and other volunteers double-check the work, the images are put online along with the searchable indexes that are linked to them. These records are made available for free to anyone from their personal computer.

The church has even partnered with other genealogical societies, and state and county historical and preservation groups, to create indexes for their own sets of records. (They are even partnering with Ancestry.com to exchange some of the indexes they each have respectively worked on in the past.) Some of these will be available on the New Family Search site, and others will be made available through those individual society or government web sites. Either way, it's a win-win for genealogists all over the world no matter how you look at it.

For now, the New Family Search site is considered a pilot site, meaning it is still not considered "finished" for the general public. However, the church is encouraging everyone to check out the site, search and use it, and offer feedback which will help them in finalizing the site and its features. The new site is here at Pilot Family Search.

This project is slated to take the next several years, but the more volunteers they get who are willing to help index these valuable records, the quicker those new records will be online for everyone's benefit. If you are interested in helping to index
these records, even if all you have to spare is 1/2 hour a week, please check out the indexing website for volunteers at
Family Search Indexing.

I am a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and I have participated as an indexer and arbitrator for the indexing program for the last 2 years. Although there is more than enough help available to you on Family Search Indexing if you decide to volunteer, I am also willing to answer any questions anyone might have about how it works, how much time is involved, difficulty level, etc.

Whether you are a member of our Church, of another faith, or none at all, I hope you will find value in this new, free and expansive resource from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This is going to make genealogy and family history
research a little easier and cheaper for all of us.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Vital Records vs. Census Records

Vital records are vital to genealogical research, as all of us are aware. However, since vital records were not uniformly kept among states and counties in the early centuries of American history, they may not always be available for every single person in a family. If that is the case, and we rely solely on vital records to find all members of an immediate family, we may be leaving someone out.

Census records, on the other side of the coin, can be fun and helpful, but we don't usually think much about those being crucial to our family history efforts because they aren't considered primary source records by most professionals. In fact, they are known for being full of errors -- misspellings in names, wrong birth dates, and illegible information due to poor handwriting by the census taker or faded or blurred originals.

In linking children into families, it makes sense to do our due diligence in locating birth, marriage and death records as our primary sources of correct information. However, we can save ourselves a lot of time, money, and fuel in traveling to courthouses, by taking advantage of the information offered us in census records freely available online. Taken together, vital records and census records can help us put together a more complete picture of a family over time than either source by itself.

Let me give a couple of examples from my recent family history work. My last blog post titled "The Lost Boys" chronicled my efforts to finish an immediate family's information from my husband's line. Using census records, I was able to find the parents and six children over a few census years. I verified those eight individuals using vital records where available. However, when I did some further digging for vital records on this particular surname, I found two children who died young. The oldest child died at 6 years old. He never appeared on a census because he was born in 1881 and died in 1888, between census years. Using only the census sheets and without the vital records, this child would have been forever forgotten.

In contrast, I have worked on families in my line who have lots of descendants working on the genealogy. As happens on the internet and in family history research in general, many of these genealogists copy information from someone else's gedcom file without ever taking the time to double check or even ask for sources. There have been several families where, from incomplete family bibles or other family records passed down, not all of the children have been linked in. I will look up all of the census records for a family that I can find, and inevitably, in one of those census years, there will be a child listed in the household that was not listed in any of the information the rest of the family has posted. The census records in these cases made sure that family members were not misplaced permanently.

There are so many resources available on the internet for finding our ancestors, and by being thorough and attempting to use as many types of sources as are available to us, we can make sure that the genealogy work we pass on to our children is not only fun and interesting, but as accurate and complete as possible.