I was very pleased to be able to attend the Who Do You Think You Are? Live family history event in London last month as president of the Association of Professional Genealogists. The best part was meeting so many genealogists from countries around the world, and exchanging ideas and perspectives on genealogy as a professional discipline. In the UK, family history has finally started to make inroads into the hallowed halls of academia, but not without a lot of hard work on the part of many dedicated genealogists. For more on this topic, see QuickLesson 18: Genealogy? In the Academic World? Seriously? by Elizabeth Shown Mills and Leveraging Genealogy as an Academic Discipline by Arnon Hershkovitz.
For genealogists worldwide looking for the authority that an academic program can bring to their family history education, online postgraduate programs at Dundee University in Scotland and Strathclyde University in England offer the opportunity for a achieving a certificate or Postgraduate diploma in Family and Local History from the comfort of home:
A wide range of historical resources and data sets of interest to genealogists are freely available online, ranging from medical officers' reports detailing health-related statistics in local communities, to lists of occupation classifications created by the Registrar General dating back to 1851, and I've included some of my favorites in this list of 10 Free Datasets for British Social History. There is plenty here to keep you exploring for hours if you have ancestors in England, Scotland, or Wales, and hopefully you'll find at least a little something to add to the stories of your ancestors.
The meaning of your German last name may be as close as the nearest German-English dictionary. Many German surnames, based on the occupations of the first bearer, are easily translated in this manner. ZIMMERMANN (Carpenter), FISCHER (fisherman), BECKER (Baker), MUELLER (Miller), and so on. Learn how to find the origin of your German surname and check out our list of the Top 50 Surnames in Germany for meanings, spelling variations, and related genealogy resources.
Many people curious about their roots expect to begin and end their search quickly, hoping to find their family tree already done. It doesn't often happen, but both published and unpublished family histories can be found at public libraries, in the collections of local historical and genealogical societies, and on the Internet. Try a search in the Library of Congress and Family History Library catalogs to see if a family history has been published on your ancestors. Online, Ancestry.com offers subscription-based access to digitized copies of thousands of published family histories. For free sources of thousands more online family histories, check out 10 Fabulous Sources for Family History Books Online (my favorite? Hathi Digital Trust).
Have you ever heard the story that your family's name was changed at Ellis Island? The United States' most famous port of immigration is also, unfortunately, the source of one of the many popular myths of genealogy - one that is still perpetuated with regularity in the media(just search Google News for keywords such as name changed "ellis island" and you'll typically find several recent articles which mention this topic). In actuality, inspection agents and Ellis Island rarely changed immigrants' names. That's not to say that mistakes weren't made, or that names weren't misspelled, but there is no known documented case of a name change occurring at Ellis Island, according to Marion Smith, senior historian for the immigration service.
The truth is, to be admitted to the United States, immigrants had to provide documentation from their country of origin. This information was used to compile passenger lists at the point abroad where the immigrant purchased his ticket. Once the immigrant arrived in the U.S., Ellis Island clerks were given these previously compiled passenger manifests, and checked off the names against the arriving immigrants. There was no need for them to write down names based on what the immigrant told them. Many Ellis Island immigration officials were themselves foreign-born, and were assigned to inspect immigrant groups based on the languages with which they were familiar. Ellis Island also employed dozens of full-time interpreters to help translate for immigrants speaking in more obscure tongues.
That's not to say, of course, that your ancestors never changed their names. They just probably didn't do it at Ellis Island. Many immigrants personally chose to change their names at some point - often to "fit in" - something done by my Toman ancestors soon after their arrival from Poland (even though I'm still not sure why Thomas is all that much easier of a name than Toman). But if your family name was changed at some point, it can probably be attributed to something other than a lazy or callous immigration official. Trace your family back to the immigrant ancestor and see for yourself!
No, you still can't research your entire family tree online. But it is crazy, these days, just how far you can get and how much you can learn. Take, for instance, the pictured U.S. pension certificate of a man named Jacob Faller obtained from a dealer in Civil War artifacts. Using this single document as a starting point, let's see just what we can learn about Mr. Faller...
When looking at a document from your own family history, the best place to begin is to transcribe the document in full, or at least abstract all potentially relevant information (everything that isn't "boiler plate" language). Pulling out the relevant details we learn:
- Pension # 1036642
- stamped "Reissue"
- "under the act of February 6, 1907"
- Jacob Faller was a "Private Co. C, 100 Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry"
- entitled to a pension at the rate of "fifteen dollars per month" commencing on 18 July 1907
- payable quarterly by the U.S. pension agent at "Pittsburg, Pa."
- given at the Department of the Interior on 20 January 1908, and signed by James Rudolph Garfield, Secretary of the Interior
So who was Jacob Faller? We know that he served in the Civil War and in what company, as well as that he was living somewhere in the Pittsburgh region. This gives us a great place to start.
Civil War Pension Files
Fold3, a subscription site owned by parent company, Ancestry.com, is the best online source for records of U.S. military veterans. A search here for "Jacob Faller" from "Pennsylvania" narrowed to the Civil War era easily brings up our Jacob in the "Civil War and Later Veterans Pension Index." This index card includes enough details to confirm this is the same Jacob -- he served in Co. C, 100th Regiment, Pa. Infantry, and his pension certificate number is given as 1,036,642. While this is only an index card we do learn more about Jacob Faller, including the fact that he died on 23 January 1910, and that his widow subsequently applied for a widow's pension (application # 934,938) which was granted (certificate 697,635). We also learn that Jacob originally filed for a pension on 7 Oct 1901, and then filed again on 18 July 1907 (which matches the commencement date on our pension certificate) and explains why it was stamped "Reissue" -- Jacob likely received a pension upon his original application in 1901, and applied for an increase in 1907 when the laws changed. A different index card found online in United States, General Index to Pension Files, 1861-1934 on FamilySearch, does not include Jacob's date of death, but does name his widow -- Julia A. Faller -- as beneficiary.
Few areas of American genealogy research pose as unique a challenge as the search for African American families. The vast majority of African Americans are descendants of the 380,000+ black Africans brought to North America to serve as slaves in the 18th and 19th centuries. Since slaves had no legal rights, they are often not found in many of the traditional record sources available for that period, at least not by name.
African Americans can still discover their roots in the pre-1870 period, however. Exhaustive evaluation of census records and slave schedules can often turn up potential slave owners. The records of these slave owners -- bills of sale, wills, estate inventories, etc. -- can then be researched for slave names. Alternative record types created in the years following the Civil War, such as Freedman's Bureau records, 1867 voter registration records, and records of the Southern Claims Commission. Even DNA can potentially be used to discover family when no records can, especially along the direct paternal line.
Get started tracing your African American family history with Introduction to African-American Genealogy. Once you've done the basics, such as interviewing your family members, then these 15 Free Web Sites for African American Genealogy and 10 Great Databases for Slave Genealogy can help you further explore your black history and heritage.
Did you know that in most areas where Spanish is spoken as the native language, children are named after both their mother AND father? It does make genealogy research a little easier, at least in some cases! Learn more about the history and formation of Hispanic surnames, as well as browse meanings and origins for the 50 most popular Spanish surnames, based on data from the 2000 U.S. census. Four Spanish surnames--Garcia (8th), Rodriguez (9th), Martinez (11th) and Hernandez (15th) were included among the 15 most common names in the United States.
A lucky break for some researchers trying to trace ancestors through the 20 year period between 1880 and 1900, a special Veterans census was taken in 1890 along with the regular census. Since the 1890 census was all but completely destroyed in a fire in January 1921 at the Commerce Building in Washington D.C., this 1890 Veteran's schedule is an alternative means of documenting veterans or widows of veterans from the Civil War and War of 1812 who were still living and collecting pensions in 1890. The special census schedule still exists for the states of Kentucky - Wyoming (the first group of states alphabetically appear to have been destroyed), as well as the District of Columbia, and documents primarily Union veterans since the U.S. government obviously had little interest in keeping track of Confederate soldiers (a few did sneak in, however!). Best of all, it is available for free online searching and viewing at FamilySearch.org!
Canadian author Lucy Maud Montgomery, best known for her series of novels "Anne of Green Gables," was born in New London (then known as Clifton), Prince Edward Island, on 30 November 1874, just one year after Prince Edward Island joined the Canadian Confederation. To demonstrate the fun of researching ancestors in the Canadian census, I've traced Maud and three generations of her ancestors through a fun variety of Canadian censuses online:
1921 Census of Canada -- By 1921 Lucy had completed the third of her eight-novel series, "Anne of Green Gables," but in the 1921 Canadian census someone has crossed out "author" as her occupation and written in "none!" She's living with her husband Rev. Ewan MacDonald, and sons Chester (8) and Steward (5), in Scott Township, Ontario.
1911 Census of Canada -- In the months between the death of her grandmother, Lucy Macneill in March 1911, and her marriage to Ewan MacDonald on 5 July 1911, Maud Montgomery appears to be the woman living with her aunt Mary (MacLeod) Montgomery and Mary's son, Cuthbert, in the Queens District of Prince Edward Island on 14 June 1911. Although listed as the "daughter" of Mary, Maud's occupation is recorded as "writing" for up to "60 hours" per week although, as in the 1921 census, this occupation is mysteriously crossed out. Read More...