I am well aware that email listserves are old school. How very 1992!
But they have endured well into the Twitter age, and I’m glad. For the family researcher, lists occupy a vital niche between large, helpful institutional sites (Familysearch.org, library websites, archive repository sites) and the personalized, insightful world of genealogy blogs.
Email listserves tackle topics in a way that appeals to a casual visitor who’s on the trail of something too esoteric to be dissected in a Genealogy 101 guide. There’s just something about the format that encourages in-depth and very specific information — information that fills in the gaps left in many standard how-tos.
Lists that are specific to localities can offer a wealth of practical research details that you could never find in a book, and you rarely find elsewhere online. Streetwise researchers will clue you in to the realities behind the pronouncements on the county clerk’s website. (“Hey, these volumes are in a dank basement lit by a single bulb, so bring your flashlight and waders.”)
And unlike blogs (much as I love reading blogs), the listserves offer a range of diverse opinions and experiences on a question. To take another practical example: visiting urban cemeteries. Some urban cemeteries are peaceful oases of green. Sadly, other urban cemeteries require some advance planning if you want to make sure you, your camera and your wallet get home OK. Here, a locality listserve is a godsend. If I read six opinions of how to handle a visit to a cemetery I’m wondering about, and they’re all pretty much on the same page, I feel a lot better that I’m planning my trip appropriately.
Sometimes, a list reader will ask a question that never occurred to me before, but should have. Recently on a list devoted to Tipperary, Ireland, it was asked how likely it would be for rural Irish villagers to move from place to place in their lifetimes. Turns out, quite likely. A couple of erudite responses thoroughly demolished the romanticized image of Auld Sod peasants clinging steadfastly to their ancestral villages for centuries — a cliche that was coloring my view of my own research, although I hadn’t realized it.
Sure, the list archives on RootsWeb look kind of … basic. And before subscribing, you really need to gauge the traffic rate of a given list as well as your tolerance for handling it. (I only subscribe in digest mode; I can’t stand individual messages piling into my mailbox.)
But beyond the old-school interface are posts filled with useful tips. Yeah, I still love those lists.
Images of many counties in the New York State census of 1865 are available online at Familysearch.org. Which is great. They are not indexed. Which is daunting.
Right before the holidays I searched for my Watervliet Haigneys in this census. I ran into trouble when I noted that these 1865 pages didn’t seem to have street names or house numbers. They number the dwellings (and the families) in order of visitation. So House 1 meant first house visited. That’s it. Not No. 1 Chapman Street, or whatever. Just No. 1 House Visited.
It did not seem possible, therefore, to browse pages by street names, which can help when you know where the family lived but can’t locate them in an index. One can’t browse by guessing where the enumerator walked first. This was frustrating, because I knew from city directories where this family was living in 1865, but I couldn’t think of how to find them in the census, short of reading it page by page.
I googled around for any obvious finding aids for the 1865 Watervliet E.D.s — nada. Obviously I would need to call or write a local expert to see if they could help with this. Then the holidays rushed up and I forgot about it. Bad me.
Then New Year’s Day rolled around, and the whole house was sleeping off the holiday calories, and I had my feet up and my 17th cup of coffee in hand, thinking about this 1865 census.
I started thinking about those pages at the back of each census district count — the agricultural schedules, the mortality schedules, the sections listing who was serving in the military. This family was headed by a soldier in the U.S. Army. Maybe that would narrow my search. So I flipped to the back of one district listing, and that’s when I saw Section X:
This tenth section includes spaces for listing important places in the district, such as churches, schools and newspaper offices. And it occurred that if I could find a listing in a district for the church where my ancestors worshiped, I might not have a sure bet, but I would feel a lot better about slogging through 50-odd pages.
The page above lists the places of worship in Watervliet’s First Election District. It notes the presence of a Roman Catholic church, although not its name. However, the Reformed Dutch church listed below it is a few blocks from St. Bridget’s, the Roman Catholic parish where my ancestors went to church.
OKAY! We have a district to search!
What happened next was a New Year’s gift. Just for laughs, I started paging through the district in reverse order. I thought it would be more interesting. (This is the sort of thought that occurs after 17 cups of coffee.)
And there were my Haigneys, on page 46 of 53 pages. Sweet.
So don’t forget those back pages in that 1865 New York census. See if a church or another landmark rings a bell. Or look to see if your surname is on the military listings. It’s one way of narrowing a search in a big district. And it sure beats reading the whole city of Watervliet.
Via Joan Manierre Lowry of the NJ-GSNJ listserve comes this announcement:
The New Jersey State Archives has now added several more years to the death
records available on microfilm at the Archives. Death records from 1941
through 1946 are now available in the microfilm search room! Another 9
years will be coming soon. These are provided as a public service to
researchers and can be copied. (And, yes, they DO include the cause of
Remember, however, that these records are available for in-person use only
and the archives staff cannot assist with mail or email requests for these
records at this time. (Archives staff can only provide copies from those
records for which they hold originals. At the present time that includes up
If you cannot get to the records in person, remember we provide a list of
professional researchers on the GSNJ website: www.gsnj.org – then click on
“Professional Researchers” in the left hand column.
As Joan says — happy hunting!
Did I get you all depressed about failed church records requests last time?
Actually, I meant to end with a call to action, to be motivational and perky, but frankly the post got just too long. That’s bad form when I was lecturing about the need to be concise and focused. So here’s the second part:
How to make sure a records request has the best chance of being answered?
Legwork, legwork, legwork. Ideally, a long-distance letter to a church is a last stop, not a first — an attempt to confirm something for which you already have strong, detailed evidence. In a truly ideal world, you would present the staff with an exact date. What does the family tradition say? What do the census results look like? Look at city directories and vintage maps. What churches were present near your ancestors’ homes? Look at military records. I found birth and marriage dates listed in a Civil War pension file.
Newspapers are your friend. In big cities like New York they can be incredibly helpful in narrowing your search for a date and a place. Obviously, look at obituaries and death notices, but don’t neglect community news. You would not believe how often the Brooklyn Eagle wrote about Holy Name Society activities, church suppers and Altar-Rosary Society benefits. Newspapers also did writeups of big events like an anniversary of a church’s dedication. Often, these articles are supplemented with mind-numbingly long lists of the names of the church members who participated. If your surnames keep turning up in doings at a given parish, that’s a good sign. Please, please don’t assume your ancestors weren’t newsworthy enough to write about. You’d be surprised, as I certainly have been, time and again. If the search engine has a keyword feature (like Ancestry’s newspaper search engine), try using your surnames as keywords. I got a lot of leads that way, including an 1857 marriage date!
Be nice. Assume nothing. When writing the actual letter, keep in mind not a vision of neat file cabinets, but a box full of random pages like the one I described in my last post. Give the most accurate, focused date you have. Ask whether the records go back that far. Acknowledge that you’re asking something extra of an already busy person. You get the picture.
If at all possible, collect the record in person. Or get somebody to stop by for you. I’m convinced that I have shaken some records loose simply because I mentioned in my letter that I’d be visiting the area on such-and-such a date, and would be taking a picture of the church, and if they found anything I would love to stop by their office. Maybe that got my letter out of the “To Do — Someday” pile. If travel to the area is impossible, organizations such as RAOGK can pair you with a local volunteer who might be able to stop by the church for you. Or maybe a fellow member of a genealogy listserve might agree to be your good angel.
A donation is a nice idea. To be honest, I doubt that most donations come close to covering the cost of the time involved, but the point is the gesture of appreciation. (P.S. I assume you already know to put in a stamped, self-addressed envelope if you’re requesting that they send you a copy of the record. But in case you didn’t … yes, put that in.)
OK, in my last post on church records I might have been too fuzzily philosophical. Now it’s time to consider the nitty-gritty as embodied in a message that’s a perennial on Rootsweb listserves. Here is my paraphrase:
Why is it that I never get a response when I write to a church asking for a sacramental record, even if I enclose a donation? No matter how nicely I phrase it, my letter goes unanswered.
I have to say I haven’t had this experience. Maybe I’m really lucky, but I’ve always gotten a record, or at least a response from a real person saying they couldn’t help me. This was also the experience noted by a number of seasoned researchers on my list.
Still: Why do some letters just keep going to the Great Request Bin in the sky? A few possibilities:
The query was too broad. Even a search within a single given calendar year can be a big task in an old, fragile and barely readable ledger for a big city parish. Assuming someone does have the time to settle in with the Anno 1898 volume and cautiously page through it, they will confront crabbed, archaic script and spotty recordkeeping. They may well miss something. “Pray for this guy,” said a staffer showing me a particularly sloppy page, about the pastor who compiled it. “He clearly needed help.”
The query was too detailed. Keep it concise and focused on the records you believe the church holds and the people to whom these specific records pertain. Resist the temptation to include the minutiae of tangential family connections, relationship theories or detailed summaries of your research to date. They don’t need to know why you need the record. They might, in fact, move on to a query that gets straight to the point.
It’s the wrong church. This happens even (especially?) if you know a lot about a certain area, and are sure the evidence points to Church X. Except it’s really Church Y. I once assumed that since the three youngest children had been buried in ripe old age at Church X in the town of their birth, it followed that that was the parish where the family baptized everybody. Wrongo. These three children and their five brothers and sisters were all baptized clear across town at Church Y. What saved me was that the archivist who oversees the records for both these churches (and four more besides) has started digitizing the records, and found my family with a surname search. Otherwise, the answer might have been: “Sorry, we can’t help you.”
It’s the right church but it’s closed. Or it’s consolidated. This trend has accelerated in urban neighborhoods. My recent research in the Capital District involved two parishes in the process of being merged with several other parishes. Are the records gone? Of course not, but it took some poking around to figure out whom to contact. In the case of Roman Catholic parishes, start by asking the diocesan archivist, who should have up-to-date information on where records from closed parishes have been transferred. (You might still end up going on a scavenger hunt, but it’s a start.)
The record is there, but too time-consuming/difficult to access. I visited one church where the ledgers had literally fallen apart. At one point the oldest pages were reposing, if you could call it that, in no particular order in piles. The staff had gotten as far as slipping each page into an archival sleeve and sorting them into acid-free boxes by (I believe) five-year increments. The church secretary showed me the box where the record I sought had been filed. She then opened up a desk drawer and pointed to a section of folders that took up a third of the space. “These are all my genealogy requests,” she said. She is administrative assistant for a newly formed parish that used to be three separate parishes. She just can’t get to them.
So what can you do to brighten your chances?
I missed this in the mad rush to Christmas Day!
On Dec. 23, the New Jersey State Archives launched a new database: World War I Casualties: Descriptive Cards and Photographs. It includes 3,427 entries for New Jersey soldiers killed during 1917-1918. These entries reflect data cards issued to adjutant generals for recording details about soldiers killed in action (or who died of other causes while on duty). Often, they include a photograph as well.
If you go to the link, you can search by surname. The list of results will tell you whether there’s a card there and whether it has a photo as well.
I don’t have any NJ-based World War I soldiers in my own tree, but I pulled up an entry to see what can be seen. It included a service photograph plus a nice clear scan of the index card, which includes spaces for the soldier’s name, residence of record, birthplace, age, service record, engagements fought in, rank, date of service, date of death and name of the person notified of the death.
Even if every space isn’t filled in (this particular card didn’t list the engagements fought), there is still lots of potentially useful information. And the photos are incredible.
(H/t to the NJ-GSNJ mail list.)