Most of the records we utilize in our research werenâ€™t really created with family historians in mind. Similarly many tools are available online now that werenâ€™t specifically created for us, but they sure can be helpful as we seek information about our ancestors. Today I thought Iâ€™d share a list of some of my favorite non-genealogy tools.
Having trouble interpreting a record for one of your non-English speaking ancestors? AltaVistaâ€™s Babelfish translator will translate text or entire Web pages for you in many languages.
Looking for more information about a battle in which your ancestor fought during the Civil War? Or perhaps your ancestor was a Philadelphia policeman and you’d like to learn more about the history of that police force. What were the working conditions of the industry in which your ancestors were engaged? The answers to these and many other questions can often be found in publications not found in your local bookstore. WorldCat will not only alert you to their existence, but when you enter your zip code it will give you a list of libraries that have those publications in their collection.
Census Enumerator Instructions (IPUMS)
Census enumerators were given very specific instructions when it came to recording the answers your ancestors gave. Reading these instructions can be very helpful in more fully understanding the records. This site includes the original instructions for the years 1850-1950.
Ever wondered whether a historic event prompted your ancestors to pick up and leave the country they had called home for generations? Wikipedia can give you some ideas. Search for a year and youâ€™ll get a chronology of world events from that year. This free online encyclopedia is a great first step, but you should verify your findings with more authoritative sources. Although much of what you see will be correct, I have found numerous errors such as events listed under the wrong year.
Have you ever found a census record written by a guy who clearly had writersâ€™ cramp? Beyond really messy handwriting, you may find that enumerators used confusing abbreviations. This website will help you sort out some of the more common abbreviations youâ€™ll find.
Many databases allow you the option of Soundex searches so that you can grab more phonetically similar variations of the surnames you are researching. Use the Soundex converter to find out the Soundex codes for your family surname variations. That way if one of the variations you have found in your research has a different Soundex code, youâ€™ll know you need to search it separately.
Geographic Names Information System (GNIS)
Ever wondered in what county a town was located? Or what cemeteries were in the county in which your ancestors lived? The Geographic Names Information System can help. Enter a town name and its state and youâ€™ll be presented with a list of features associated with that townâ€”and the name of the county it falls within. Click on a name for geographic coordinates and links to various maps and satellite views of the area.
Another cool mapping site, Google Maps allows you to view a standard map view, a satellite view, or a view of the terrain. How tall was that mountain that great-grandpa had to traverse to visit the nearest town? Zoom in on the terrain view and it will tell you. Going to visit a library or courthouse for the first time? Google Maps has â€œstreet viewâ€ available for a growing number of cities. You can zoom in on an address and see the actual building. Using the rotation arrows you can turn around and look at the other side of the street, move down the street and see landmarks you will be able to use as you navigate your way to the repository. Street view can also enable you to see buildings in your ancestorsâ€™ neighborhoods that are still standing. In the image accompanying this post, you’ll see St. James Cathedral, the Brooklyn church that several of my ancestors attended. (Click on the image to enlarge it.)
Early Medical Terms & Diseases
OK, this one really was created with us in mind, but itâ€™s still handy for finding out what disease Great-grandma Sue died from–in todayâ€™s terms.
Hereâ€™s another one created for us, but just the same, itâ€™s helpful to see what epidemics may have impacted our ancestors and their families. Often youâ€™ll find that people moved away–sometimes permanently, sometimes temporarily–when severe epidemics struck in their area.
What Are Your Favorites?
Is there something I missed? Please share your favorites with us in the Comments section of this article.
Juliana Smith has been an editor of Ancestry newsletters for more than nine years and is author of “The Ancestry Family Historian’s Address Book.” She has written for “Ancestry” Magazine and wrote the Computers and Technology chapter in “The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy,” rev. 3rd edition. Juliana can be reached by e- mail at Juliana@Ancestry.com, but she regrets that her schedule does not allow her to assist with personal research.