Local Societies and Their Publications

With the explosion of digital content available at FamilySearch, Ancestry, and other subscription sites, many researchers are left with the impression that an online query at those databases constitutes an “exhaustive” search. Clearly, that is not the case. Researchers that overlook local society publications, print or online, do so at their own peril.

One of my all-time favorite print resources is Hillsdale County Marriage Index: Hillsdale, Michigan, published by the Hillsdale County Genealogical Society. A two-volume set, one for brides and the other for grooms, the resource covers the years 1835-2000; a 2001-2005 supplement is also available. Here are a few entries from the book:

Hillsdale County Marriage Index: Hillsdale, Michigan (2001), p. 598.

Organized in 1835, Hillsdale County is located in southern Michigan on the border with Indiana and Ohio. This means that at the time this resource was published, it included every marriage recorded in the history of the county, a remarkable achievement. With each entry, researchers learn the name of the bride and groom, the year of marriage, and the appropriate liber and page number to be able to find a copy of the county marriage record. What a fantastic resource! I don’t have Hillsdale County ancestors, but I almost wish I did.

The real strength with this resource is the fact that it includes contemporary content, with marriages nearly up to the present day. The large subscription sites may have impressive collections of documents, but in many cases, they do not contain recent records like we see with this Hillsdale County example. We are fortunate here in Michigan, as other examples of local societies indexing their county’s vital records proliferate, including the Downriver Genealogical Society, Flint Genealogical Society, Huron Shores Genealogical Society, Genealogical Society of Monroe County, and a number of others. The critical point is that in many cases, the local society publications often include more recent genealogical information not readily available elsewhere.

One other important point with these society publications is that they often index the county-level records, which in Michigan is a different record than the state-level one; this is an important distinction, as each record set will have a unique citation and source information. I will explore the state vs. county conundrum in more detail in a future blog post.

To find these important society publications, be sure to visit the local society’s web site, the available titles for purchase are always listed. Research libraries, such as the Library of Michigan or the Allen County Public Library, also maintain impressive collections of local society publications.

For many years, local genealogical societies have worked tirelessly to index and make available the records for their respective community. Although more content continues to be placed online, it is important to remember that an overwhelming amount of information will still remain on the ground in courthouses, libraries, and archives. Researchers would be remiss to not utilize the local genealogical society and their publications catalog in the geographic area their family called home.

Comparing 1940 with 1930: The Piotrowski’s

Like many of us, I dove right in last week with the release of the 1940 Census, and was excited to quickly find all four of my grandparents: two in Chicago, one in East Chicago, Indiana, and one in Kalamazoo, Michigan. In my family narrative, the 1940 census offers a glimpse into the dynamics of each of my grandparents’ lives, at an important threshold right before their marriages and the outbreak of World War II. Indeed, by the next census in 1950, each set of grandparents will have families of their own, extending the family tree to the next generation.

When I give programs on various genealogy subjects, I almost always use examples of Stanley Piotrowski, my great-grandfather. Not only did he lead an interesting life, but his genealogical paper trail is fascinating and provides a number of fantastic and instructional examples; comparing the Piotrowski’s of 1930 with the family of 1940 is one of those.

In 1930, Stanley and his wife lived on North Street in Kalamazoo, Michigan with their two children, Stella and Francis. Having moved to the city sometime in 1920 or 1921, Stanley worked as a baker and grocer and also became a leading member of the local lodge of the Polish National Alliance. Here is the family in the 1930 Census:

1930 Census, MI, Kalamazoo Co., Kalamazoo, ED-39-15, p. 9A.

Several things jump out with this example, but the most obvious is Stanley’s wife’s name. What is it? Why is it not listed? Her birth name is Wladyslawa (which may explain the enumerator’s reluctance to include it), but the Americanized name was Winifred, a much less challenging exercise. Had I been searching for just Winifred, I would not have had much luck, to say the least. This example illustrates that despite all the technological advances made in family history over the years, the records will only ever be as good as the information found in them. The real puzzler about this 1930 census page is that all of the other family data is accurate, including date of immigration and birthplace, but for whatever reason, the enumerator did not include Winifred’s name. Is there a story there? Did a neighbor provide the information? Perhaps one of the children? Did Stanley or Winifred, but then forget to give her name? Why is the name not listed? I will likely never know.

Moving forward to 1940, we find that not much has changed for the Piotrowski’s. They all still live at the same address on North Street in Kalamazoo, although Winifred is now identified by name; a pleasant change from the 1930 record! One clue not found, however, is the “x” next to the name showing which family member provided the information to the enumerator. That important mark can give the researcher an idea about the accuracy (or inaccuracy) of the information. Given Winifred’s name gap in the 1930 census, I’m not entirely surprised there is no designated “x” with the 1940 record.

1940 Census, MI, Kalamazoo Co., Kalamazoo, ED 39-19, p. 6A.

This is the last census where the Piotrowski family appears together. Francis was killed during World War II, and Stella married in 1943 and started her own family shortly thereafter. Indeed, given the seismic worldwide impact of the coming Second World War, the 1940 Census offers a singular glimpse into thousands of families across the United States, the Piotrowski family included. Although the surviving family members remained in the Kalamazoo area for decades, that Piotrowski line was never all together again on a census page. All of us have similar family stories or tragedies, which makes our 1940 finds all the more compelling.

1940 vs. 1930: Census Release Day

Having been a local history and genealogy librarian for nearly a dozen years, I’ve now experienced “Census Release Day” on two occasions as a professional, first with the 1930 and now with the 1940. I’m not one to get caught up in the first-day mania, but I do get excited with all of the media attention the day brings to our field of study. Coupled with the success of the “Who Do You Think You Are?” and “Finding Your Roots” television series, genealogy and family history has never been as popular or as mainstream as it is today.

As that smiling face behind the reference desk that assists researchers in utilizing the resources, online tools, and various finding aids to locate their ancestors, I’m particularly interested in the first-day experience from the librarian’s perspective. In my experience here in Michigan, the difference between the 1930 census release day back in 2002 and the 1940 release this week is remarkable. I know it’s difficult (or painful) to remember, but life in 2002 didn’t include Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Flickr, or “The Cloud.” Think of how quickly information (or misinformation) spreads in today’s world, whether it be new product launches, content updates, or hot topic news. Social media platforms and new technologies have transformed genealogy research in immeasurable ways; our online habits, research strategies, and information sharing today is so much more immediate, widespread, and sophisticated than in 2002. Of all the stories that the 1940 census will unlock for researchers, the most remarkable just might be how genealogists access and share information and how librarians manage those researchers’ immediate expectations.

Back in 2002, researchers arrived at the library looking for and expecting the 1930 census both on microfilm and online. The researcher’s realization that the data was often not immediately available, accessible, or indexed, due to server overload, data upload, or processing time, was sometimes difficult. I recall that Michigan was one of the earliest states put up online, yet many researchers still used the traditional access strategies brought via microfilm. As we progressed through the decade, however, fewer and fewer researchers utilized the films and instead relied solely on the subscription databases; online indexing, however frustrating, coupled with the lack of traditional indexes certainly accelerated this phenomenon.

Yesterday, a number of researchers visited the library looking for and expecting the 1940 census online; microfilm is an afterthought. Michigan may or may not be one of the earlier states put up online this time around, but researchers now will instinctively use online access via FamilySearch, Ancestry, and the National Archives. Today, researcher frustrations now center around overwhelmed servers, time delays with page loads, and unindexed content, not the absence of microfilm. Certainly, we have experienced a sea change in access and research expectations from one decade to the next.

Over the years, I’ve learned that being a reference librarian also means being a coach, friend, drill sergeant, therapist, handyman, and information guru. Teaching and guiding researchers of all levels in this age of instant access has been interesting, to say the least. Helping researchers understand that thousands – millions? – of genealogists just like them are also anxiously waiting to study those same images has forced me to demonstrate some of my hidden reference talents mentioned above.

I’m already looking forward to the limitless possibilities of the 1950 Census release-date on April 1, 2022. How different will genealogy research be then? Think of how our research has evolved in the last 10 years, or even the last 5 years. What an exciting time to be researching family history!

X Marks the Spot

As a local history librarian, I have worked very closely with the Death Records, 1897-1920 collection available online at Seeking Michigan. Totaling nearly 1 million certificates, this collection covers a critical period in Michigan’s history, the point where the state became the worldwide epicenter of the automotive industry. Drawn by the lure of steady work and wages, thousands of families migrated to Michigan from all over the United States and around the world.

As a family history researcher, I am particularly fascinated with off-the-beaten path records, those unintended, peculiar, or otherwise accidental certificates. One terrific example at Seeking Michigan is Edith Constance Fraser, who died in Windsor, Ontario on 24 January 1900. Born in Canada in 1867, Ms. Fraser was the daughter of Alexander and Mary Fraser, and was buried at Elmwood Cemetery in Detroit on 26 January 1900.

Edith Fraser death, 24 January 1900, Wayne County, MI

So what is an Ontario death doing amidst a collection of Michigan records? The large “X” across the certificate indicates that the record is invalidated, suggesting that a true “official” record exists elsewhere under a different jurisdictional authority; in this case, Ontario, Canada. For whatever reason, a Michigan record was filed under Wayne County for Ms. Fraser, perhaps because the burial took place in Detroit. In the recent past, finding this example would have been next to impossible, as the existing indexes only included valid certificates; today with online access, researchers can easily find any certificate in the collection, whether an official record or one branded with an “X.”

Now let’s explore the corresponding “official” Ontario death record for Edith Fraser.

Edith Fraser death, 24 Jan 1900, Essex County, ONT (009289)

This record not only reinforces some of the data gleaned from the Michigan certificate, but also offers new information, including Ms. Fraser’s residence in Essex County and her religious affiliation. All good material, but more important is what is NOT shown – parents’ names, cemetery, name and address of undertaker, and date of burial – information all provided on the Michigan record.

When comparing the Michigan and Ontario records side by side, although each provides unique information, one can argue that the Michigan record offers far more genealogical value than the Ontario one. The point here, then, is that in some cases, there may be a second – and possibly quite different – record; this would be true particularly with families near a county, state, or international boundary, or ancestors that are buried in a different location than where they lived. The invalid or “X” record may provide important fields of data, such as parents’ names, that the official certificate does not. Depending on the state and time period, then, perhaps the accidental record is superior to the official one, much like the Edith Fraser example above.

Other out-of-state examples abound in Seeking Michigan, including death certificates from as far as Oakland, California, St. Louis, Missouri, and Cleveland, Ohio. In the case of Edith Fraser, a genealogy researcher would be delighted with her paper-trail legacy of dying twice. Each record provides unique insight into her life and family, while simultaneously opening new avenues of research. What more could one ask for?

“Removing” the 1890 Gap – City Directories

One of the big thrills of research is the unexpected information revealed in unexpected places. City directories remain one of my favorite sources, but they are of particular value during the 1890 gap, that time period of frustration for many of us; with the loss of the 1890 Census, researchers are often left with a wide 20-year chasm in their research, during a critical period in American immigration, industrial, and social history.

Treasure troves of fantastic local historical information, including listings of local business, Grand Army of the Republic posts, public buildings, cemeteries, churches, ward boundaries, street guides, schools, advertisements, fraternal societies, and, of course, names, directories can place residents in urban communities, usually on an annual or biennial basis. Many of the directories from across the United States, roughly between 1861 and 1921, can be found online at the subscription database Fold3.

Each named entry typically includes an address, occupation, and in some cases the name of a deceased spouse. In addition to the important information above, directories for certain (not all, unfortunately) cities also include death dates for the recently deceased. Here is an example from p. 1298 of the 1890 directory for Boston, published by Sampson, Murdock, & Co.:

Bernard H. Vandenacker, 1890 Boston city directory

Other cities that have this death date information, and there undoubtedly are others, include Detroit (MI), Grand Rapids (MI), Jackson (MI), Minneapolis (MN), Providence (RI), and Toledo (OH).

Perhaps more revealing than the death information, however, are the “Removed to” entries found in the same directories, which show where residents have relocated to, whether it be a neighboring county or a far-away community across the country. Given the wide timeline gap presented by the loss of the 1890 Census, identifying that an ancestor moved, and where, is of great importance.

Here is a snip for a Miss Julia Bell from p. 77 of the 1890 Jackson, Michigan city directory, published by R. L. Polk.

Miss Julia R. Bell, 1890 Jackson (MI) city directory

For Miss Bell, who perhaps had married by the 1900 Census, this directory offers a vital clue for a researcher tracking down her whereabouts during the 1890 time period. Chicago is a good distance from Jackson, and knowing where to focus the research is critical to success. Using the directories from the cities listed above, perhaps you, too, can find those unexpected clues in familiar resources.