Ancestry Blog » Site The official blog of Ancestry Tue, 28 Jul 2015 13:58:17 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Who Do You Think You Are? Recap: Following the Clues with Ginnifer Goodwin Mon, 27 Jul 2015 01:49:55 +0000 Read more]]> You see it all the time in movie mysteries: the genius detective trying to solve a case that seems to have no answer. As the story progresses, however, we are transported into the detective’s mind. Random clues appear to glow in the detective’s vision, flashbacks to telling circumstances pop on the screen, and the audience watches as this genius pieces together seemingly unconnected observations to solve the unsolvable case. Plenty of research projects hit a point where it appears there is no answer, but we, as genealogists, can be that genius detective—not by having four doctorates, speaking 17 languages, and having a strange personality quirk, but by simply taking our time, being observant, and examining all possibilities.

Ginnifer Goodwin’s maternal great-grandmother, Nellie May Haynes, was this kind of a mystery. At the point of our brick wall, we had the following information:

  1. Court documents showed that she had divorced Ginnifer’s great-grandfather, John Albert “Al” Goodwin, in 1912 in Independence County, Arkansas.
  2. Nellie had retained custody of her two children, a daughter named Pearl and a son, John Barton, Ginnifer’s grandfather.
  3. John Barton left the family in his teens in the late 1910s, likely in Memphis, Tennessee.
  4. No Nellie, Pearl, or John Barton Goodwin appeared in the 1920 census in Tennessee or Arkansas.
  5. No match for Nellie or Pearl appeared in death indexes for Tennessee or Arkansas.

Where would a single woman with two young children go? As they do today, recently single parents with young children often went to their families for support. Interestingly, although Nellie’s family was originally from the town of Batesville in Independence County, Arkansas, research into her parents found that her father, Isaac Bart Haynes, died in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1917.

It was also likely that Nellie would have remarried at some point, so we first searched the database of Tennessee marriages on Ancestry to see if Nellie married there, but no good matches appeared.

One of the best resources for tracing a person in the early 20th century are city directories, which provide the names, occupations, and addresses for most of the adult population of a specific city every year. Ancestry has an extensive collection of these directories, including directories for Memphis spanning from 1855 to 1960. Nellie’s daughter, Pearl, would have been coming into adulthood in the later 1910s, so it was possible we could catch her in a directory living with her mother in the few years between when she became old enough to have her own entry but before she would have married and been living with her husband.

In order to find the right Nellie, we used the basic search function on Ancestry and compiled a list of every Nellie and Pearl who appeared in the Memphis city directories from 1913 to 1920. Then we examined each entry, looking for any Nellie and Pearl who shared a surname or address. Being meticulous and patient, we eventually found the match we were hoping for: in the 1918 Memphis directory, a Nellie Wyllie and a Pearl Wyllie each had her own entry but shared the same address. Also living at the same address was a Hugh Wyllie, who we thought could have been Nellie’s husband.


Of course this evidence was still circumstantial. Our next step was to find a way to prove that these were indeed our Nellie and Pearl and that Hugh was Nellie’s new husband. Returning to the index of Tennessee marriage and death records, this time with the surname “Wyllie,” once again turned up no results. Our survey of death record indexes for surrounding states, however, eventually uncovered the death record of a Nellie May Wyllie who had died in Minden, Louisiana. This appeared to be quite a leap, but further examination of this record showed that this Nellie Wyllie was born in Batesville, Independence County, Arkansas, to a father surnamed Haynes, just like the ancestral Nellie, and that her husband’s name was Hugh. Here was our proof. We had found out what happened to Nellie after her divorce.

In the end, taking our time to explore every possible match and remembering even the slightest clues allowed us to solve this seemingly impossible case. Although it may have looked like movie magic, it was actually just patience that allowed us to trace Nellie from her divorce in Arkansas to her residence in Memphis with Hugh Wyllie and finally to her death in Minden. The story of what happened between Memphis and Minden, however, is another story altogether.

Tips from Ancestry ProGenealogists:

  1. Be patient and observant. It’s tempting to pass a record or collection by if it doesn’t immediately appear to hold the answer you’re looking for, but if you are patient and observant, you will often find a crucial clue where at first there was none. Researching your ancestor often means performing even more research into other people. In this research we spent time examining every single Nellie and Pearl in Memphis for eight years in order to find the single entry in one year that led to our proof.
  2. Information about spouses, children, and other relatives, along with neighbors and acquaintances, can often help you find the ancestor you’re looking for. Don’t get too tied up searching for one name. Triangulate your ancestor’s location by finding other people you know they associated with.

Learn more about Ginnifer’s journey or watch episode recaps from previous seasons on Watch more celebrities discover their family history on all-new episodes of Who Do You Think You Are? Sundays 9|8c on TLC.

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SSDI’s New Companion: U.S., Social Security Applications and Claims Index, 1936-2007 Fri, 24 Jul 2015 14:22:10 +0000 Read more]]> The Social Security Death Index (SSDI) was among the first collections posted on Ancestry when the website first began adding content back in 1996. Since then, it has been a boon to researchers looking for 20th-century ancestors and those doing descendancy, heirship, and other types of forensic genealogical research.

Once you locate an ancestor in the SSDI, you can get even more details and a glimpse at your ancestor’s autograph by requesting the SS-5 form, which is the application they filled out for to request a Social Security number. The SS-5 gives the applicant’s name, address at the time of the application, employer’s name and address, full birth date and place, gender, race, parents’ names, and signature. Below is my grandfather’s SS-5.

SS-5 application for John Szucs, Jr.

SS-5 application for John Szucs, Jr.

The downside? It costs $27 and it takes time: they suggest allowing 4-6 weeks for delivery. (Information on requesting an SS-5 can be found here.)

For 49 million people whose records were extracted by the Social Security Administration (SSA), some of these details can now be found on Ancestry. In Ancestry’s exclusive new collection U.S., Social Security Applications and Claims Index, 1936-2007, you’ll find information filed with the Social Security Administration through the application or claims process, including valuable details such as birth date, birthplace, and parents’ names. While not everyone found in the SSDI is included in this collection, you may find some people in this collection that are not in the SSDI.

My great-grandfather does not appear in the SSDI (most likely because his death was not reported to the SSA), but there is an extract from a life claim he made in 1948.


While his record only lists his birthplace as Hungary, this record for a different John Szucs gives the town name and his parents’ names.


While the contents of the extract will vary from person to person, this is a fantastic resource for 20th-century research, and you don’t have to wait 4-6 weeks for results. Dive in and start searching for your family now.

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The New Ancestry: July 22nd Feature Update Thu, 23 Jul 2015 20:02:38 +0000 Read more]]> Welcome to our weekly update on the new Ancestry website. Last week we posted an article that called out upcoming enhancements that we had planned. Here is this week’s update on our progress. We have also included links to articles and videos at the end of this post that will help answer your questions and provide more tips on the new site.

Feature update:

We have updated a number of features, and we continue to add and refine features based on your feedback.

Features updated since the launch of the new Ancestry site:

  • Person Media Gallery – Show & Sort. SHOW allows you to show only the media types you want to see – Photos, Stories, etc. SORT allows you to view the data in the order you choose – New to Old, Alphabetical, etc.

SHOW allows you to show only the media types you want to see – Photos, Stories, etc.

SORT allows you to view the data in the order you choose – New to Old, Alphabetical, etc.

SORT allows you to view the data in the order you choose – New to Old, Alphabetical, etc.

  • Family Card in Hints – Allows you to see the family of the person you are evaluating Ancestry Hints for – this mirrors the Family Card in the Facts View.


  • Research tools – A shortcut that provides you nifty tools such as View in tree, View Notes, View Comments, and Merge with Duplicate. You can access these tools with just one click from the Tools button.




Features that we are still working on:

  • FamilySearch integration – LDS Account holders will be able to share information between their Ancestry tree on the new Ancestry site and their Family Tree on FamilySearch.
  • Print option on profile pages – A new printer-friendly version of the Facts view or LifeStory view of the individuals in your tree.
  • Profile picture cropping – Edit/crop a profile photo to fit in the circular photo space
  • Member Connect – Find other members researching a similar ancestor and save info from their family trees
  • Family Group Sheet – A family view of the of the person and their family

Top Reported Issues

Below is a status on the top issues surfacing from your feedback.

  • Inaccurate narrations in LifeStory and Facts view – We are looking at the language in the narrations and how to better generate narratives.
  • Photos added to events to appear as thumbnails in Facts view – Thank you for your feedback on this. We are evaluating whether to include this functionality in the new Ancestry site.
  • LifeStory map pins appearing in wrong locations – This has been an issue due to how the locations are evaluated. We implemented a fix last week that will prevent mapping pins for any location that doesn’t have a standardized place. We are also looking at improving the standardized place engine to ensure correct pin placement.
  • Relationship Calculator – We have had reports that this has been inconsistent in displaying on the profile page.  We are working on a fix and should have this available soon.

We appreciate your feedback and encourage you to keep submitting it. What do you love about the new website? Did you find a bug? Something doesn’t quite work like you think it should? Please submit it via this form. Thank you. We will be providing more updates over the next couple of weeks.


More Resources on Ancestry

Help Links





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Over 100 Years of Canadian Yearbook Records are Now Online Tue, 21 Jul 2015 16:56:34 +0000 Read more]]> As kids across the country enjoy their break from the books this summer, we just released a collection of more than one million historical yearbook records (featuring more than 100,000 pages), helping shed light on Canadian high school and university attendees from years past.

The Canada, Selected School Yearbooks, 1908-2010 collection contains 1,355,141 Canadian middle school, junior high, high school and university records from almost 800 institutions across the nation. Providing insight into the academic, athletic and social achievements of Canadians from the past century, these yearbooks can help place people in historical context and create life stories of Canadians that might otherwise be left uncovered by traditional historical records.

The collection also paints a picture of the lives of some well-known Canadians before they were famous, including:

William Shatner – President, Radio Workshop, McGill University, 1951
Before becoming a cultural icon, William Shatner helped to shape McGill University’s theatre scene. According to the University’s 1952 yearbook, Shatner was president of The Radio Workshop. At a time before television existed in Canada, the Radio Workshop provided an opportunity for students to explore all facets of radio, including acting, directing and producing. In fact, according to the 1952 records, McGill students wrote scripts that were broadcast over Station CFCF, one of Canada’s first radio stations. In addition to his role as president of the Radio Club, Shatner’s yearbook records reveal his early interest in acting, with the future Captain Kirk shown to be a member of the Players’ Club and the Red & White Revue musical theatre clubs at McGill University.



Martin Short – Le Raconteur Staff, Westdale Secondary School, 1967
Known by his peers as ‘Marty’, Martin Short was an active member of his Hamilton, Ontario high school long before he was cracking jokes on SCTV and Saturday Night Live. According to Westdale Secondary 1967 yearbook, Short helped shape the school’s records, acting as staff of Le Raconteur, Westdale’s annual yearbook, and even contributing a short story as part of the book’s written entry section. The school’s 1965 yearbook also shows that Short was musically inclined years prior to his 2007 Tony Award nomination, listed as a member of the Boys Senior Band.



Lesley Anderson, genealogist and Content Specialist for Ancestry notes “Yearbooks are usually found in the attic or basement, so we don’t frequently think of them as an important family history source. But they can provide fascinating insight into our ancestors at a stage in their lives that we may not otherwise be aware of, by highlighting anything from quotes and photos to hobbies and extracurricular activities. The new yearbook collection can help Canadians dig deeper into their ancestors’ lives, helping to tell a richer story of each family member and paint a picture of their personalities.”


Who will you find in Canada, Selected School Yearbooks, 1908-2010 collection?

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The New Ancestry: July 15th Feature Update Wed, 15 Jul 2015 16:44:02 +0000 Read more]]> It has been just over a month since we introduced the new Ancestry website, designed to transform how you can discover and tell your family story. Over the last month, we have been listening to your suggestions for how to make the new site even better. We’ve been working hard to incorporate your feedback to improve the ease and effectiveness of the new site.

Last month we posted an article that called out some of the upcoming enhancements that we had planned. We wanted to update you where we are on those features and also on some of the issues we have seen and resolved. Finally, at the end of this post we have included links to articles and videos that will help answer your questions and provide more tips on the new site.

Feature update:

We have updated a number of features, and we continue to add and refine features based on your feedback.

Features updated since the launch of the new Ancestry site:

  • View and add notes – Notes are now available as a slide-out on the right side of the screen, so you can quickly review and add notes. It is turned on in the tools menu on the top right.
  • View and add comments – Comments are now available as a slide-out on the right side of the screen, so you can quickly review and add comments. It is turned on in the tools menu on the top right.
  • Media Gallery / Viewer – We have added a number of features to the new media Gallery/viewer:
    • Save photos to your family trees from the new media viewer
    • Edit the description and details on a photo or story
    • Create and upload a new story in the media Gallery
    • View and listen to audio and video files
  • Story formatting in the Gallery – We have fixed the layout and formatting to make it more readable.
  • Web links – We have implemented web link functionality on the new Ancestry site. Web links are found on the Facts View at the bottom of the Sources column.
  • Age on Facts View events – The age at a specific event has been available on the LifeStory page in the new Ancestry. We have now also added it to the Facts View to make it easier to review facts.
  • Adjusted profile page photo to better fit – Some pictures were not fit correctly. This has been adjusted to show the whole picture on the profile page.
  • Quick edit – The quick edit option is now available on the person card in the tree viewer under the Tools menu. It is also available under the Edit menu in the person profile.
  • Guidance on LifeStory and Facts view – We have added some in-line help screens that appear when you first come to either page.
  • Source and media counts on Facts view – Sources and media associated with events on the Facts view are now represented with a number count in addition to the fact/source link lines. Counts are also links and will direct to the appropriate section in the edit modal when clicked.
  • Media Comments – Comments from the classic site will be available in the media viewer with the ability to also comment on them in the new Ancestry site.

Features that we are still working on:

  • Media Gallery sorting/filtering – Sort and filter by media type, chronological order.
  • FamilySearch integration – LDS Account holders will be able to share information between their Ancestry tree on the new Ancestry site and their Family Tree on FamilySearch.
  • Print option on profile pages – The ability to print a new printer-friendly version of the Facts view or LifeStory view of the individuals in your tree.
  • Profile picture cropping – Edit/crop a profile photo to fit in the circular photo space
  • Member Connect – Find other members researching a similar ancestor and save info from their family trees
  • Family Group Sheet – A family view of the person and their family

Top Reported Issues

We continue to listen to and track your comments and issues on social blogs, comments, and in the survey that appears when you leave the new Ancestry site. Below is a status on the top 10 issues surfacing from your feedback.

  • Family Group Sheet – Some of you have asked for this to be available to view and to print. We are planning to make this available.
  • Inaccurate narrations in LifeStory and Facts view – We are looking at the language in the narrations and how to better generate narratives.
  • Photos added to events to appear as thumbnails in Facts view – Thank you for your feedback on this. We are evaluating whether to include this functionality in the new Ancestry site.
  • LifeStory map pins appearing in wrong locations – This has been an issue due to how the locations are evaluated. We implemented a fix last week that will prevent mapping pins for any location that doesn’t have a standardized place. We are also looking at improving the standardized place engine to ensure correct pin placement.
  • Printer-friendly options on LifeStory and Facts view – These features should be available within the next month.
  • Circle profile picture issues – We have updated the profile image to show more of the picture. We will soon release a cropping tool to better fit individual portraits and individuals from group photos.
  • Member Connect – We are evaluating what to do with this feature moving forward. Currently, Member Connect has been underutilized by most members.
  • Color scheme feedback – We have heard your feedback about the readability of the new colors. We are continuing to adjust parts of the site to make sure it is easy to see and use. The new styles are designed to increase the contrast and usability. We will continue to adjust where issues are identified. For example, a bug with Windows 7 and TrueType font support was causing readability issues for some members. We have documented how you can fix this issue here.
  • “Try the new Ancestry” advertisement showing when printing records – This was happening in error and has been resolved.
  • Can’t uncheck profile photo – This issue has been addressed and is now available and we are working to make it more intuitive to change the profile photo.


Help Links


Help Articles



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Quick Guide Available: New Facts Page Wed, 01 Jul 2015 18:22:39 +0000 Read more]]> The updated Facts view lets you add facts, family members, sources, and more. To get you started, take a look at these common tasks and how you can perform them with the new site.

Guide to Facts View

(1) Find a person in your tree—While this feature works the same, you’ll find it on the top-left side of the page. Click the person/search icon to open the search field.

(2) Use the Tools menu.

– View in Tree—Opens the family tree with this individual as the focus.
– View Notes—Lets you view notes you’ve entered for a person. For more information on this feature click here.
– View Comments—Lets you view comments you’ve made (or others have made). For more information on this feature click here.
– Merge with Duplicate—Lets you merge the person with someone else in your tree. For more information on this feature click here.

(3) Use the Edit menu.

– Save to Tree—Lets you save the person to another family tree.
– Edit Relationships—Lets you change relationship types. For example, you can change a child from biological to adopted or vice versa. For more information on this feature click here.
– Delete Person—Lets you delete an individual from your tree permanently.

(4) Add a fact—You can add a fact for a person using the Add drop-down above the Facts list. For more information on this feature click here.

(5) View your relationship to the individual—Relationships are calculated automatically in the new Ancestry. Click the relationship link to view. For more information on this feature click here.

(6) View the number of available hints—At the top of the page you’ll see the current number of hints for a person next to the Hints tab.

(7) Add a source—It’s easier than ever to add a new source, simply click the Add drop-down above the Sources list.

(8) Add a family member—Like the classic site, you can add a family member using the Add drop-down on the right side of the page.

(9) See how sources and facts are connected together—Click a fact to see connecting lines indicating which sources support the fact; click a source to see which facts it supports.

(10) View and add web links—At the bottom of the sources list, you can view, add and edit your web links.


The instructions in this article pertain to our New Ancestry experience. If you are not yet using this experience and would like to switch, please click here for instructions.

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Understanding Your Privacy Settings Fri, 26 Jun 2015 14:30:34 +0000 Read more]]> At Ancestry, we value and respect our customers’ privacy and we have standards in place to protect the integrity of the data our customers entrust to us. So, we want to be clear about a policy change we are making.

As of today, we are updating our privacy statement to clarify what information we may use and share in an effort to further research in fields such as human evolution and migration, population genetics, health, ethnographic diversity and genealogy. We feel we can contribute to discoveries about the intersection of family history, health and genetics that could benefit our members and society at large.

Please visit our updated privacy statement here.

What this means to you:

We will not share information with third parties for research unless the information has been anonymized or aggregated so that individuals cannot be reasonably identified. Personal information such as names and addresses are kept confidential.

We will not share information from private trees for research purposes unless you have agreed to participate by signing our informed consent.

Your Privacy Settings:

While the majority of our customers choose to keep their trees public for the benefit of discovering, sharing and collaborating with the Ancestry community, you do have the option to make your tree private.

New customers are prompted at registration to mark trees as ‘public’ or ‘private’.

Existing customers can log-in and follow the directions here to make their family tree private.

If you have any questions or concerns, please visit our privacy center here.

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Historical Insights: Walking in My Ancestors’ Shoes Mon, 22 Jun 2015 19:05:22 +0000 Read more]]> Reed family in CaliforniaI never understood my parents’ obsession with family history until I started to see my ancestors as more than just names and dates—and dusty old records. At first it was reading my Grandpa Pete’s journal describing the Statue of Liberty when his family arrived from Denmark. And when I read The Grapes of Wrath and heard how my grandparents also lived in a truck as they journeyed from Oklahoma to California during the Dust Bowl, I was completely hooked. Over the years, I’ve spent quite a bit of time researching historical events trying to understand the challenges my ancestors faced and learn more about their daily lives. Now, you can have a similar experience delivered to you by Ancestry through Historical Insights.

What Are Historical Insights?

One of the goals of the new Ancestry experience is to help you uncover the stories behind the facts in your tree. And one of the ways to do this is to discover the historical events that shaped the lives of your ancestors. I’ve spent quite a bit of time gathering info and photos for my great-grandpa Jim Bobbitt. If you asked me his birth and death dates and states he’d lived in, I could rattle them off quickly. But the LifeStory interspersed with Historical Insights changed my perspective on his life. In a glance I could see that he was born before the Civil War (and as I learned through an Insight, he was living in Illinois when Lincoln and Douglas had their famous debates there) and died after World War I. I imagined the changes he saw over his lifetime, from the Emancipation Proclamation and women’s suffrage to a world embroiled in a global conflict.

HI_homesteadersOther events crystallized in my mind too. I knew he moved from Illinois to Nebraska in the 1870s, but until I saw the Historical Insight about homesteading, I didn’t realize it was during a time when the U.S. government opened up western lands and offered pioneers acres of free land. Was this why he moved his family? And although I knew Jim had participated in the Oklahoma Land Rush, I gained a new appreciation for this exciting moment in American history when I looked at the images and stories included in the Insight. After learning so much about his life, I found myself clicking from person to person enjoying my tree in a way I hadn’t before, watching these amazing people coming to life on my computer screen.

How Do We Know What Your Ancestor Experienced?

So how did Ancestry know to put information about the Lincoln Debates, Homestead Act, and Oklahoma Land Rush on my great-grandpa’s LifeStory? Insights are a lot like hints. We use algorithms that look at records and facts in your tree and compare them to dates and locations of historical events. In the case of my great-grandpa, the system could tell he moved from Illinois to Nebraska between 1870 and 1880 using census records I’d saved to my tree. Because Nebraska was one of the states opened up by the Homestead Act during this time period, the event was added to his timeline. You may find that some family members aren’t included in specific events like you expected (or relatives have irrelevant Insights on their timeline). That’s because Insights are like hints and won’t always be presented for the correct people.

Where Can You See Insights?

When we first launched Historical Insights, they could be viewed only on Apple iOS mobile devices. We’re happy to announce that they’re now available on the desktop too. All you need to do is sign in to the new version of Ancestry. (If you haven’t tried the new site yet, now is the time. And if you try it and want to go back to using the current version, just click “Classic Site” from your account drop-down menu.)

Screen Shot 2015-06-19 at 3.25.31 PMHistorical Insights appear automatically in each family member’s LifeStory. To learn more about the event and see historical photographs, simply click the photo (or Review button). If you like the Insight and want to keep it in the timeline, click the Keep button; click Ignore if you don’t want to see the Insight again for this person. Make sure you select Keep or Ignore for each Insight because only two new Insights will appear on a timeline at once. After you accept or ignore an Insight, you just might get something new the next time you view the LifeStory. (Notice that other family members who might have been affected by the historical event are also shown.)

Screen Shot 2015-06-19 at 4.09.41 PMYou can hide Historical Insights on the LifeStory and Facts view. For example, if you’re busy in research mode and don’t want them taking up space in the timeline, click the settings drop-down menu and choose “Hide Historical Insights.”

What’s Ahead?

Because Ancestry members have ancestors that crisscross the world and have lived through many centuries, we know that we won’t be able to cover every flood, plague, war, or immigration wave that ever happened. But that doesn’t mean we aren’t going to try. By the end of June we’ll have almost 600 Historical Insights for 20 countries including the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Russia, South Africa, China, Mexico, and Hungary. And if you have family living in America during the Revolutionary War or Civil War, you’ll want to check your ancestors’ timelines in coming weeks; new Insights will let you know whether you have relatives who were living near battlefields during these key conflicts.

Let’s Hear from You

Although we have a team of experts combing through history books, websites, and timelines looking for events that changed the world, we want to know what interests you. Did a new industry revitalize your grandpa’s hometown and bring masses of workers to the area? Was an earthquake responsible for the destruction of an entire town causing your family to move? Let us know in the Comments section about the historical events that you’d love to see in your ancestors’ timelines.

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Farmers: The Unsung Heroes of America Mon, 22 Jun 2015 14:46:33 +0000 Read more]]> This is a guest post by George Morgan, genealogy expert and co-host of The Genealogy Guys podcast. 

I can document two U.S. presidents in my family tree. While their lives are fascinating, their stories don’t pique my interest nearly as much as the lives of the

Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress

Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress

common men and women who embody the spirit of the American farmer: the people who migrated, cleared land, built homes and farms, cultivated crops, bred livestock, raised families, and founded the communities that helped make America.

To effectively research your ancestors — whether they were farmers or financiers — you have to become a student of history. That way, when you look for details that pertain to your family, you’ll have a better handle on the social situations that may have prompted certain events or choices. And it helps to start at the beginning.

Colonial Times

America’s early farmers often worked the land to repay debts they incurred getting to the new colony. Frequently the price was a period of indentured servitude. Investors, who often owned the land and fronted the cost of transport to America for the settler, may have also shared the proceeds of the settler’s labor. At the end of the period of servitude, the settler was often given land and livestock and continued to live in the colony.

But times were tough. Farmers cleared land, plowed, planted, and harvested, raised livestock, and traded with one another for what they didn’t produce. Women grew vegetable gardens, prepared and preserved food, spun thread, wove cloth, sewed the family’s clothing, scraped and tanned hides, made quilts, soap, and candles, maintained the house, and cared for children.

Diaries and journals from the 17th century often paint bleak pictures of early colonists beginning with nothing. Some managed to do little more than eke out a meager living in the face of an inhospitable climate, disease, Indian attacks, crop failures, and any number of disasters that could decimate a population. Things could only get better.

The 1800s

As the country expanded, farm life improved. The Erie Canal, the Louisiana Purchase, and other federal acquisitions, including treaties that removed Indian tribes, opened more lands to settlement — and agriculture — and accelerated expansion west and south. Tools that previously had to be made by the farmer were now available for purchase. Railway depots opened and towns sprang up around transportation hubs that moved mail, people, farm produce, livestock, timber, ore, and other commodities.


Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress

People continued to move to the cities following the Civil War as the second Industrial Revolution took hold, and markets for livestock and other agricultural goods grew both in the cities and overseas. Steamships reduced overseas transport time to half what it had been before the Civil War, and international trade in agricultural and industrial goods exploded. Working the land was still hard but getting better.

The 1900s

Then came the 20th century. Opportunities for foreign trade seemed unlimited — until June 1914, when hostilities in Europe escalated into World War I. American farmers suffered as overseas shipping lanes and trade were dramatically affected, though much of their effort was redirected to the war effort and supplying the military. Post-World War I revitalization was halted when the Great Depression struck, which was complicated further by droughts in the Great Plains. Hundreds of thousands of farmers in the Dust Bowl migrated to California and other states seeking work. And, while World War II brought new employment opportunities that lured farmers who had not been drafted into industrial work, for more than a few young men, it meant an end to life on the farm.


Getting Personal — Records of Farm Life

Plenty of sources exist to help you dig into the details about your family’s farm life. You can start by turning to a source you’re already familiar with: the federal census.

Federal Census

From 1850 forward, federal census population schedules indicated the profession of each person in a household and the value of real estate owned. Going forward and backward through census years and noting changes in land value might help you gauge a family’s prosperity and can suggest a look at other records.

County Records

A land value on a census record will point you directly to the county courthouse to look for indexes of land transactions, which could include indentures, mortgages, and satisfaction of indebtedness to a lender.

Annual property tax records are usually found in the office of the county property tax assessor at the county seat and can tell you the years your ancestor owned the land as well as any debts that may have resulted in liens or foreclosures. Pay careful attention to what was happening both in your family and in the area in which they lived to see if you can determine what may have caused financial hardship or gain. For example, a drought may have caused negative financial impact on your family’s farm, while a new irrigation canal could have spurred financial gain. You can also compare land ownership values from census to census for hints of other purchases and sales you should search for.

Land changing hands may also clue you into a few personal details about your family’s relationships. My great-grandfather Rainey Baines Morgan and his wife, Caroline A. Morgan, purchased a little more than 270 acres in Caswell County, North Carolina, from Rainey’s father, Goodlow Warren Morgan, for $4,900 in 1883. Later that year, Goodlow gifted additional land to Rainey. By reading that deed, checking 1880 census records, and consulting maps, I determined that the gifted property was Goodlow’s own farm. It seems that Goodlow had married his second wife on 5 March 1883 and was moving to Iredell County, his new wife’s home. He gifted his land to son Rainey, but the terms of the deed said that Rainey would farm the land and pay Goodlow revenue from the produce.

Agricultural Schedules

The federal government included an agricultural schedule in the 1840 through 1910 censuses to gather detailed information about farm production and land usage (note that the 1890–1910 schedules did not survive). I researched my great-grandfather Green Berry Holder, his father, and his brother in Floyd County, Georgia, in the schedules from 1870 and 1880. Green Berry owned 400 acres of land, six horses, five mules, 56 head of cattle, pigs, chickens, and a few sheep. All of his land was being used for agriculture, none for timber or mining. He grew corn, wheat, oats, and barley. He also produced eggs, butter, and more than 400 pounds of honey each year. Moving to another family, I found that in 1880, Goodlow’s farm was producing tobacco and soybeans and employed two farmhands. Existing agricultural schedules have been microfilmed and are available at the National Archives, the Allen County Public Library, through LDS Family History Centers and the Family History Library, and in larger regional public libraries (though these may be limited to a regional scope). You can find a handful at

News Reports

Newspapers often include reports of land transactions, estate transfers from probate courts, auctions of land and personal property, liens filed against property

Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress

Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress

holdings, and tax lists, any of which may provide clues from which you can make inferences. One of my distant cousins, James Alexander Wilson of Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, enlisted in the Confederate Army on 16 September 1861 as a 1st lieutenant. He resigned his commission on 11 December 1862 due to disability incurred in battle. Subsequently, the Charlotte Observer reported that his property taxes were not paid for 1864 and 1865 and that his farm was auctioned off for taxes in May 1866.

Government Land Documents

Bounty land warrants, homestead applications, and land patents all give you more details about land transactions. My great-great-grandfather Spencer Ball traveled from Virginia to Alabama in 1822. According to the Bureau of Land Management’s General Land Office, Spencer purchased four tracts of land on 26 November 1822 in the town of Cold Water, in the district of Huntsville, Alabama. He purchased two additional tracts in Mardisville, Talladega County, Alabama, on 1 August 1837. While the land patents provide dates, exact locations, and sizes of land parcels, the case files (also known as jackets) can provide details about the purchase, use of the land, and other information about the transactions and the family. Full homesteading land entry case files are available through the National Archives. You can also find homestead-related land patents for a number of states online at and from the Bureau of Land Management. Visit here for links to websites.

Local Histories

Despite the vital role they played, if your agricultural ancestors are like mine, you won’t find them in textbooks. I found mine woven into local histories like The History of Mecklenburg County [North Carolina], 1740–1900, by J. B. Alexander, published in 1902. My grandmother Morgan was born in Mecklenburg County in 1873, after her ancestors arrived there in the 1840s from Maryland and Pennsylvania. Important as those specific mentions in the book were, the understanding I got of the county and its people, religious life, and social customs was every bit as useful.

Your Job

Farmers were businessmen, so they left a paper trail of records associated with their affairs. Learning to read between the lines of those records and going further by researching social conditions, other nearby farms, and tracing that business forward and backward through the years will help you appreciate your own family’s farmers, America’s heroes, even more.

George G. Morgan is an internationally recognized genealogy expert. He has written eight books including The Official Guide to He is co-host of The Genealogy Guys podcast and videocast, found here.

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Fathers Paving the Way: Birds of Passage Thu, 18 Jun 2015 14:32:36 +0000 Read more]]> You could hear the emotion in her voice as Lillian Galletta told Janet Levine of the National Park Service about her arrival at Ellis Island in 1928.

We were in this big room, very large room, and they called your name out. And when they called Galletta, my father came running through the turnstile, and he squatted on his knees with his arms outstretched and the five of us ran into his arms and we were kissing and hugging. We were so happy to be together, and he said, “We’re all together now. We’ll never be apart again.”

Her emotions are easy to understand. You see, the family had been apart for most of Lillian’s young life. Her father was among a group of immigrants commonly referred to as “birds of passage.” Often leaving their families for long stretches, these immigrants, most commonly from southern and eastern Europe, came to America often not intending to stay, but rather to find seasonal work and save money to make a better life for themselves and their families in the old country.

According to his naturalization papers, Lillian’s father, Pietro, first came to the U.S. in 1921 on board the Pesaro.  Sure enough, we find him on the passenger list for that ship on 21 March 1921. While we don’t have records of his return trips to Italy, we can find him returning to the U.S. in 1923 on the Conte Rosso, again on 21 March. His destination in the U.S. was Lodi, Bergen County, New Jersey, just across the Hudson River from Manhattan.

He must have liked the opportunities he was finding here in the U.S. because in 1923 he filed his declaration of intent to become a citizen of the United States in the Court of Common Pleas in Bergen County. He naturalized in Brooklyn, Kings County, New York, in 1926 and began moving his family over in 1927.


That year, his wife and eldest two children came over on the S.S. Presidente Wilson. According to Lillian, the oldest two came because at ages 18 and 17, they could work and provide extra income to send for the five children left behind in Italy.



Those children slept in the family home and were cared for by their Uncle Lawrence, who lived down the block with his family. Lillian explains that every morning he would come to their home to get them wearing a large cape. If it was raining, he would cover them with the cape like a family of chicks and take them to his home, where they would have breakfast, lunch, and dinner, before being escorted back to their house to sleep at night. Finally in 1928, the remaining five children made the journey to the U.S. and the family was reunited in the scene Lillian described.




That same scene or a similar one was played out by the families of many immigrants who had been separated when one or both of the parents went on ahead to America to work hard to make a better life for their children. Here are some tips for researching the “birds of passage” in your family tree.

  • Search for them using ethnic names. Lillian’s sister, who appears as Josephine in U.S. census records, is listed as Giuseppa on the passenger list and her father’s naturalization record; brother and father, both Peter in U.S. censuses, were Pietro or Petro; and sister Mary was Mariana. With these similar variants try wild card searches. On Ancestry, an * replaces zero or more characters; a ? replaces one, but there has to be a character there. So I can search for P*et*r* and pick up Pietro, Pietro, Petro, and other variants.
  • If you’re not finding them with the variants of their given name, it’s possible that they went by their middle names or a nickname or even a more American-sounding name they chose. Lillian is Calogera or Calogra on the passenger list and on her father’s naturalization record, but in the 1930 and 1940 censuses she is listed as Lillian. This made her a little difficult to find since Lillian is not an Anglicized version of Calogera. Additionally, her brother James was listed as Vincenzo. Knowing the family structure though, a search for her sister Carmella using Carmel* (her name was sometimes Carmela or Carmelina) allowed us to find the group in the passenger lists. So sidestepping to a sibling or other family member can sometimes do the trick.
  • Italian women often traveled under their maiden names, and this was true of Alphonsa, Lillian’s mother, who is listed on the 1927 passenger list as Alfonsa Vigneri (note the variant of her first name as well) with her two eldest children, Marianna and Vincenzo Galletta. The practice of married women traveling and using their maiden names on official documents is not something you might find only with Italian women; Hungarian women may be found using their maiden name, married name, or some combination of the two.
  • While we don’t have records of our “birds of passage” immigrants leaving the U.S., timelines that include the birth dates and places of children can help us pin down some visits. We know Dad had to be in town about 9 months before the birth of a child, so that can help. (That, or Mom had some explaining to do.) Knowing when the father may have been in the old country can clue you in if you’ve missed some of his arrival records here in the States. There’s more information on creating timelines in this free download.
  • Try to find all of the passenger lists that relate to the family. One of the nice things about researching immigrants of this era is that the passenger lists were slowly expanding, with new questions added to the forms beginning in 1893 when the forms became standardized. Additional questions were added in 1903, 1906, and 1907. This is the era where we start seeing an ancestor’s town name being listed, as well as who they were going to meet in the U.S. and where, and the name of the nearest relative in the old country. On the five younger Galletta children’s 1928 passenger list, they listed this person as their Uncle Lorenzo (the Uncle Lawrence who took care of them in Italy). Immigrants were asked whether they had been to the U.S. before and when, in addition to many other important details.
  • Look at the names of witnesses to naturalizations, marriages, baptisms, and other events. Also browse the passenger lists looking for other passengers from the same town as your ancestor. Often these migrant workers traveled with others from the same area in the old country and worked together here in the U.S. Being familiar with those associated surnames can help you be more certain you have the right family.
  • In the 1920s, immigration laws were changing. There was a lot of pushback with so many immigrants coming from the southern and eastern countries of Europe. The Emergency Quota Act of 1921 for the first time set a numerical limit on immigrants to the U.S. by country. It limited the number of immigrants coming into the U.S. to 3 percent of the number of immigrants from that country who lived in the U.S. at the time of the 1910 census. The Immigration Act of 1924 cut that number to 2 percent of the number of people from that country who were living in the U.S. at the time of the 1890 census. These cuts would have struck fear into the Gallettas (and many other immigrant families In that same situation) of never being reunited again. This may have been part of what prompted Pietro to naturalize so quickly. By doing so, his family members are listed as U.S. citizens – citizenship derived via his naturalization – and they were not subject to the quota restrictions.

Stories like that of the Galletta family are what drive so many of us to discover our family history. This Father’s Day we honor the “birds of passage” and all of our immigrant ancestors whose sacrifices, love, and determination to make a better life for their families played a role in who and where we are today.

If you’d like to hear the Galletta family story, or one of the 2,000 other stories of Ellis Island immigrants, for yourself, it’s available in the Ellis Island Oral History Collection. Lillian’s interview is here.  Be sure to grab a box of tissues.

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