Blog » Amy Johnson Crow The official blog of Tue, 22 Apr 2014 21:33:37 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Pennsylvania Death Certificates Now Available Fri, 18 Apr 2014 18:43:54 +0000 Amy Johnson Crow Read more ]]> Pennsylvania research just got easier, thanks to the release of Pennsylvania, Death Certificates 1906-1924. This collection contains more than 2.4 million records and has images of the actual death certificates.

Statewide registration of births and deaths began on 1 January 1906. This collection of death certificates currently runs through the end of 1924 (later records will eventually be added to this collection).

Here is the death certificate of Joe Boyer, a racecar driver who died after a crash at Altoona Speedway:

Joseph Boyer, Jr. death certificate

Joseph Boyer, Jr. death certificate

This gives us good reminders about using death certificates:

  • People don’t always die where they lived. Joe resided in Detroit, Michigan and died in Altoona, Pennsylvania.
  • Information is only as good as the informant’s knowledge. The informant on Joe’s death certificate was W. F. Holliday. Who is he (or she)? Would he have known who Joe’s parents were and where they were born? For that matter, would he have known Joe’s birthdate and where he was born?
  • Information can be imprecise. Death certificates often list where the deceased was buried. In this case, his burial place is listed simply as “Detroit, Mich.”

Even with what might be fuzzy knowledge of the informant and a less-than-specific place of burial, this certificate gives us good clues for further research. We have an age and birth date. We have that he was a “Jr.” and that his father was Joseph Boyer, Sr. We can follow up with census records. It says that he was buried in Detroit, which helps us find his place of burial. (It turns out to be Woodlawn Cemetery. Here is his memorial page on FindAGrave.)

Of course, with the date and place of death, we can look for obituaries. Joe’s prominence as a race car driver – he won the 1924 Indianapolis 500 – means that there are numerous articles about him and his racing activities. Ironically, there’s an article about how he drove to Altoona for the race.

This new collection of death certificates is just one of numerous collections for Pennsylvania. Take a look at these other collections that can help you find your ancestor in the Keystone State.

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Paying Taxes… Or Not Tue, 15 Apr 2014 19:54:59 +0000 Amy Johnson Crow Read more ]]> They say that the only things certain in life are death and taxes. Genealogists are used to dealing with records surrounding an ancestor’s death, but what about taxes?

Tax Basics

Tax records in many locations date back earlier than vital records. They’re great for our research because they tend to be kept on a regular basis. (Have you ever heard of a government saying, “Never mind. We’re not going to collect taxes this year.”?) Tax records tend to cover a wide range of people, including those who didn’t own land.  Some locations taxed personal property (sometimes called “chattel”). This could include livestock, slaves, furniture, stills, carriages, etc.

Tax lists don’t necessarily prove residency. A person doesn’t have to live where they own land. Generally speaking, real property (land and buildings) is taxed where the land is; personal property and income is taxed where the owner/earner lives. There are always exceptions, but a good rule of thumb is that a real estate (land) tax list doesn’t prove residency, but a personal property or income tax list does.

IRS Tax Assessment Lists has numerous collections of tax lists. One of my favorites is the IRS Tax Assessment Lists, 1862-1918. Be sure to scroll to the bottom of the page to see the states and years that are included in this collection.

The Internal Revenue Service (originally called the Bureau of Internal Revenue) was created in 1862 to “provide Internal Revenue to support the Government at to pay interest on the Public Debt.” These tax lists generally list the person’s name and residence, the items being taxed and their value, the amount of the tax, and whether or not the tax was paid.

Here is a portion of the record from May 1863 for Wayne County, Indiana. Henry Binkley was taxed on $275 worth of wagons; for this, he was taxed $8.25. Aaron Boyer’s corn brooms worth $27 resulted in a tax of $1.41. (See, I told you people were taxed on more than just land!)


What about A.D. Band at the top of the list? His taxable item was way over on the right hand side of the page under “Class C – Enumerated Articles.” (This is a good reminder to scroll across the page!) His taxable articles: 30,475.95 gallons of distilled spirits, with a tax of $6,095.19.


And a Tax Cheat

On Tax Day, it’s hard not to think about one of the most famous tax evaders of all time: Al Capone. The federal government tried for years to gather evidence to convict him of distributing alcohol during Prohibition as well as the violence that surrounded his Chicago gang. What finally did Capone in was an investigation that connected him to income from a gambling house; though it was illegal, the income was taxable. He was convicted of tax evasion in 1931 and was eventually sent to Alcatraz.

Capone’s indictment and conviction made the front page of newspapers across the country, including this one from the Benton Harbor, Michigan News-Palladium, available on

Benton Harbor, Michigan News-Palladium, 24 October 1931, page 1.

Benton Harbor, Michigan News-Palladium, 24 October 1931, page 1.



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Research in the Old Line State: Maryland State Guide Fri, 11 Apr 2014 15:47:54 +0000 Amy Johnson Crow Read more ]]> Maryland flagMany of us (myself included) can trace our roots back to Maryland. The history we can find there is fascinating, both in terms of our families’ and the state’s.

Maryland can be described as a land of contradictions. It was founded in part to be a safe haven for Catholics from England who wanted to settle in North America, yet Catholics were never the majority. Its famed “Act Concerning Religion” (also known as the Maryland Toleration Act) provided religious protections for Christians, but not for Jews and other non-Christians. It was a slaveholding state, but did not secede from the Union.

(As a side note, I haven’t verified it, but “Maryland, My Maryland” might be the only state song that contains the word “minions.”)

Our new free guide “Maryland Resources: Family History Sources in the Old Line State” will help you with an overview of Maryland history and numerous sources to use when researching your Maryland ancestors.

Need a similar guide for another state? You can find all of the guides that have been published here. Don’t worry if your state isn’t listed; we’re going to publish one for each state. Stay tuned!

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Well-To-Do or Poor as Church Mice? Figuring Out Your Ancestor’s Wealth Tue, 08 Apr 2014 20:48:12 +0000 Amy Johnson Crow Read more ]]> April 5 – 12 is Money Smart Week, designed to help people learn more about their personal finances. Did you know that you can also learn about your ancestors’ financial well-being? You probably don’t have access to their checkbooks (or the jars of cash buried in the back yard), but there are some common records you can use to get a general idea of your ancestors’ wealth.

The 1850, 1860, and 1870 federal census asked for the value of a person’s real estate (land and immovable objects like houses and barns). In 1860 and 1870, the census also asked for the value of personal property. You should take these values as estimates. The census taker didn’t verify the values and it’s possible that the person might have been less than truthful with his or her answers. (Would you tell a complete stranger how much your property is worth?)

My ancestor Samuel Ramsey lived in Hopewell Township, Perry County, Ohio in 1870. According to the census, Samuel had real property worth $5,850 and personal property worth $1,000.

1870 census showing Samuel Ramsey had real estate worth $5,850 and personal property worth $1,000.

1870 census showing Samuel Ramsey had real estate worth $5,850 and personal property worth $1,000.

That’s good information, but what does it really mean to have $5,850 of real estate in Hopewell Township in 1870? There are a couple of ways you can put this into more context. First, you can convert those dollars into “today’s money” using a inflation calculator. One of my favorites is WolframAlpha. On there, I can type in “How much is $5850 in 1870 worth today.” It calculates that an equivalent sum today would be $109,800.

Another way to look at your ancestors’ property values is how they compare to others in the neighborhood. For my Samuel Ramsey, I looked at the property values of the heads of household on his page and the two pages before and after his. Here’s the rundown of the real estate of those 42 heads of household:

  • 12 had no real estate
  • 5 had real estate valued less than $2,500
  • 5 had real estate of $2,500 – $4,999
  • 12 had real estate of $5,000 – $7,499
  • 4 had real estate of $7,500 – $9,999
  • 4 had real estate of $10,000 or more

The average real estate value of all the heads of household was $4552; the average value among just the landowners was $6,374. So my Samuel and his $5,850 in real estate was above average in one way, but definitely wasn’t among the larger landowners in his neighborhood. Seeing this helps me put that $5,850 in better context.

You can do the same type of analysis and comparison with the values on the agricultural and industry/manufacturers schedules. These can be found for selected states in Selected U.S. Federal Census Non-Population Schedules, 1850-1880.

Newspapers can also give an idea of the cost of living. Check out the classified section for the cost of house rentals. Advertisements will give you an idea of the cost of common items, so you can see how far a dollar would have gone.


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Learning From the Many Names of Mickey Rooney Mon, 07 Apr 2014 17:40:12 +0000 Amy Johnson Crow Read more ]]> When I heard about the death of actor Mickey Rooney, I did what many genealogists do when a famous person of that era passes away: I looked for him in the 1940 census. It turns out that his entry tells us not only about him, but also an important lesson about the not-so-famous people in our own family trees.

Names Can (and Do) Change

Armed with information from several short biographies that were published when he died, I looked for a Mickey Rooney in California, who was born around 1920 in New York. None of the results seemed to fit the bill.

Maybe he was enumerated using his birth name, which was given in various news accounts as either Joseph Yule, Jr. or Ninian Joseph Yule, Jr. Again, nothing seemed to fit using those names.

There are a number of ways to spell Yule, including Ewell. What if the name was horribly misspelled or under a variation that I hadn’t thought about? I tried searching for him without a surname. I searched for first name Mickey, born in 1920 (+/- 2 years), living in California, with a mother named Nell (who was listed in many of the news accounts).

Bingo! The surname Rooney had been crossed out on the record and he was enumerated as Mickey McGuire. His occupation was “screen artist” in “motion pictures.” (Also living the household was Richard Paxten, whose relationship was “stand-in Mickey Rooney.”)

Mickey Rooney, aka Mickey McGuire, in the 1940 federal census.

Mickey Rooney, aka Mickey McGuire, in the 1940 federal census.

Upon further digging, it appears that Mickey Rooney’s mother wanted him to change his name legally to “Mickey McGuire” as part of a lawsuit involving copyright and royalties in a string of movies he did based on the comic strip character Mickey McGuire.

What We Can Learn

We expect that a famous person might use a name that’s different than the one he or she was given at birth. But name changes are something that we need to keep in mind with “regular” people, too.

Some name changes were done legally. Massachusetts Name Changes, 1780-1892 lists nearly 40,000 records of name changes handled by courts in Massachusetts. Divorce records sometimes decree that the woman (and occasionally her children) may use her maiden name again.

For all of the legal name changes, there are countless more that were done on a more informal manner. Step-children can be listed with their step-father’s surname instead of their own. People can go by their middle name or a nickname instead of their “real” first name. Women sometimes use their maiden name or the name from a previous marriage when she divorces or becomes a widow.

The Take Away

Even if “Rooney” hadn’t been part of his census entry, we could still identify this record as being Mickey Rooney in 1940 based on his age, birth place, residence, occupation, and his mother’s name. If you’re not finding your person, think about what other names he or she might have been using. Also think about other identifying facts (birth date, birth place, etc.) and who else that person is associated with.


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Degrees of “Cousin-ness” Sat, 29 Mar 2014 15:24:28 +0000 Amy Johnson Crow Read more ]]> As we research our family history  we often make connections with distant cousins, either through our online trees or DNA testing, who we hadn’t met before. But what is the proper term for said distant relatives? It can be confusing trying to figure it out. If your closest relative is a great grandparent, but there is one generation gap, are you third cousin? Are they removed? Let’s take a look at what those cousin terms mean, and how you can figure them out in your family tree.

Degrees of “Cousin-ness”

Terms like “first cousin” and “second cousin” refer to what I call the degrees of “cousin-ness.” It’s an indication of how close the common ancestor is to them. The further back the first common ancestor is, the larger the number.

First cousins are as close as you can be and still be cousins. It means that the closest ancestor that two people have in common is a grandparent. (If they were any more closely related, they would be siblings.) “Second cousins” means that the closest common ancestor is a great-grandparent. Third cousins, then, have a great-great-grandparent as their most recent common ancestor.

Removed Cousins

“Removed” refers to how many generations “different” two people are. Their most common ancestor might be the great-grandfather of one and the great-great-grandfather of the other. Since they’re not equally distant from the common ancestor, “removed” is a way to show how far apart they are.

An Example

In the example below, John and Mary had two sons: Adam and Abe. Adam had a daughter named Barbara; Barbara had a son Charles; and Charles had a daughter Denise. Abe had a son named Bob; Bob had a daughter Cathy; and Cathy had a son David. Let’s see how these people are related.

Barbara and Bob are first cousins. Their closest common ancestors are their grandparents (John and Mary). Barbara and Bob have the same distance from their closest common ancestors; no “removed” is necessary.

Cousin Tree

Charles and Cathy are second cousins. Their closest common ancestors are their great-grandparents (John and Mary). They, too, are the same distance away from their closest common ancestors; no “removed” is necessary.

Similarly, Denise and David are third cousins. Their closest common ancestors are their great-great-grandparents. They are the same distance apart, so we don’t need a “removed.”

Barbara and Cathy: Their closest ancestors (John and Mary) are Barbara’s grandparents, but Cathy’s great-grandparents. The one closest determines the “degree.” In this case, Barbara is closest. She’s a grandchild, so that makes the degree “first cousin.” Cathy is one generation different (she’s a great-grandchild), so we need to “remove” her once. Barbara and Cathy are first cousins, once removed.

Barbara and David are first cousins, twice removed. Barbara is still the closest, at grandchild, so it’s still a first cousin. But David is two generations different, so he needs to be “removed” twice. Put it together and you have first cousins, twice removed.

What about Charles and David? The closest relationship to the common ancestors is Charles, as a great-grandchild. That makes the “degree” second cousins. But Charles and David are one generation different, so they need to be “removed” once. Their relationship is second cousins, once removed.

Working It Out With Your Cousins

If you want to calculate relationships between two people in your family tree, you can sketch out their descent from the common ancestors (like I did with John and Mary) and see where they are.

If you’re more mathematically inclined, there is a formula you can use. Take the relationship of the closest ancestor and add 1 to the number of “greats” for the “degrees.” For example, if the closest ancestor is a great-grandparent, the degree is second cousins. Add the number of “removed” as necessary.

Many genealogy software programs, such as Family Tree Maker, allow you to choose two people in a family tree and calculate their relationship. Seeing what these terms mean and how you can calculate the relationship yourself can help you understand those relationships better.


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Calling All Cornhuskers! It’s the Nebraska State Research Guide Fri, 21 Mar 2014 16:04:02 +0000 Amy Johnson Crow Read more ]]> If Indiana is the “Crossroads of America,” Nebraska could be “America’s Main Thoroughfare.” The Platte River and its tributaries have been a natural east-west trail for ages. As the United States pushed westward, railroads began to look at Nebraska as a desirable route for a transcontinental railroad. If your ancestors ended up in the West, chances are good that they passed through Nebraska.

Though Nebraska was formed as a territory in 1854 as part of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, it wasn’t until after the Civil War that its population really began to grow. Nebraska went from a population of 122,993 in 1870 to more than one million in 1890. This explosive growth came from a variety of factors. Businessmen saw opportunities in Omaha and in towns that sprang up along the railroad. There was also in influx of immigrants from Germany, Sweden, Denmark and Russia.

Advancements in agricultural tools made a huge impact on the appeal of Nebraska as a land to settle in. With better implements, the tough prairie soil was much easier to cultivate.

If you have Cornhusker ancestors, be sure to check out our new free guide, “Nebraska Resources: Family History Sources in the Cornhusker State.” It is filled with resources to help you discover that part of your family tree. It’s one of many state guides that are available.


]]> 4 Women of the West Fri, 14 Mar 2014 16:23:31 +0000 Amy Johnson Crow Read more ]]> March is Women’s History Month. Women are sometimes hidden in history and in the records we use in our research. Husbands leave bequests in their wills to “my beloved wife.” Women are listed as “Mrs. John Smith” in newspaper articles. It can be challenging to pull out the stories of the female half of the family tree.

A gem of a resource if you’re researching women in the western United States is Women of the West, 1928. This book contains biographies of over 1,100 women in Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming. It is “dedicated to the women of the West, co-builders of a great nation.”

mattie-hummellAs you go through the biographies, you begin to see these women as real people, not just a line on a census record. Mattie R. Hummell was not just the wife of the late Dr. W. C. Hummell. She was also a graduate of the Idaho State Normal School, president of the Idaho State Business and Professional Women’s Club, chairman of the Study Division of St. Anthony’s Woman’s Club, and did child welfare work.

These biographies also have great clues for further research. Many of these women, such as Mattie Hummell, graduated from college; perhaps the school has more information about her. These biographies can also help you track a woman through various residences. Miss Fanny M. Irvin of Boise, Idaho, was born in Buffalo, New York, studied law at the Washington (D.C.) College of Law, and was a former resident of New York City, New Mexico, Chicago, and Washington. (No wonder you could never find her on the census!) Most of the biographies list the woman’s husband, children, and sometimes her parents.

Even if your ancestor isn’t the subject of one of the biographies, it’s worth taking a look at this book for the social context it provides. The Idaho section gives a good overview of education in the state. Though it focuses on the role of women in schools, it is good background information for anyone with ancestors who went to school in Idaho in the early 1900s.

As I.L. Patterson, Governor of Oregon, said in the introduction: “Since the days of pioneer mothers, the women of Oregon have contributed much to the progress and welfare of the state. A proper recognition of the valuable services of our women citizens is eminently desirable.”

Maggie Smith Hathaway, educator and welfare worker; Alma Margaret Higgins, organizer of women's clubs and civic organizations; and Irene Welch Grissom, writer and entertainer.

Maggie Smith Hathaway, educator and welfare worker; Alma Margaret Higgins, organizer of women’s clubs and civic organizations; and Irene Welch Grissom, writer and entertainer.


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Ancestors in The Buckeye State: Ohio Research Guide Thu, 13 Mar 2014 22:54:49 +0000 Amy Johnson Crow Read more ]]> 1827 map of Ohio by Anthony Finley.

1827 map of Ohio by Anthony Finley.

Ohio has a place in many of our family trees. Whether they were just passing through or they put down roots, many of our ancestors (mine included) called Ohio “home.”

As an original gateway to the west, Ohio drew in people from across the east and south. Connecticut claimed much of the northeastern part of the state, including a section called the “Firelands,” used to compensate people who lost property to the British during the Revolution. Virginia claimed much of the southwestern part of the state in an area called the Virginia Military District. Revolutionary War veterans could claim bounty land there. Many of them did and moved with their families. Others sold their claims to land speculators.

Ohio’s early fortunes rose with easy transportation. The Ohio River and its tributaries made for natural pathways. In 1825, Ohio began building canals, which aided the transportation of goods and people and opened up the area to outside markets. Later, railroads crisscrossed the state and spurred even more migration and industry.

Our new free guide “Ohio Resources: Family History Sources in the Buckeye State” gives an overview of Ohio history, as well as resources to help you research your Buckeye ancestors. Be sure to look at the other state guides that are available.

I’ve always considered myself fortunate to have so many Ohio ancestors because of the richness of Ohio’s records. The diversity shown throughout Ohio history also means there is always something new to explore and learn.



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African American Civil War Veterans and the Grand Army of the Republic Wed, 26 Feb 2014 18:06:15 +0000 Amy Johnson Crow Read more ]]> GAR insignia, printed on the charter of Kansas GAR Post 68.

GAR insignia, printed on the charter of Kansas GAR Post 68.

African Americans gave proud service during the Civil War. More than 186,000 men served in the United States Colored Troops (USCT), approximately 18,000 served in the U.S. Navy, and thousands more in segregated state regiments, such as the famed 54th Massachusetts Infantry. Pension records often come to mind when researching these individuals, but your research shouldn’t stop there.

The Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) was the largest organization of Union veterans. It was open to all honorably discharged veterans who had never borne arms against the United States. It was founded in Illinois in 1866; membership reached nearly 500,000 by 1890. The GAR was politically active. It was due largely to its advocacy that pension requirements were changed from being based on disability and financial hardship to being based on service. In addition, local GAR posts provided financial aid and burial benefits for its members.

The GAR was unusual. Unlike most other fraternal or patriotic societies of the nineteenth century, it was racially integrated. Black veterans could – and did – join. What is interesting is how being integrated worked in different areas. In some locations, blacks and whites joined the same posts. In other areas, posts were self-segregated. (There is debate on whether this was done because African Americans did not feel included in the other posts or if they opted to form their own posts in order to build a stronger sense of community.)

Local GAR posts kept different types of records including description books, which detailed the members’ service, birthplace, residence, occupation, and details of injuries sustained during the war. Some entries include information about the veteran’s death. GAR muster rolls contain similar information. This can be valuable information to help fill in the gap created by the missing 1890 census.

There are three large collections of GAR records on New York, Grand Army of the Republic Records, 1866-1931; Kansas, Grand Army of the Republic Post Reports, 1880-1940 ; and Kansas, Grand Army of the Republic Bound Post Records, 1866-1931.

Below, we see Edward A. Tolliver’s entry in New York Post 234′s descriptive book. He was 49 years old, born in Lexington, Kentucky, lived on 117th Street, and was a porter. He served in Company G, 20th USCT. On the next page, there is a note that Edward died 3 May 1910. (Note: when you’re looking at these records, always scroll to the next page.)


Not every Union veteran joined the GAR. However, you should explore GAR records if your ancestor served. It can give you another glimpse into his life.


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