Listen, I like Ancestry.com just fine, but every once in a while I get a little bug-eyed at how much it just keeps growing and growing, merging into everything that lies in its path. Some days it’s hard not to feel like Steve McQueen and friends confronting the Blob outside that funky 1950s movie theater.
I continue to poke and prod at Ancestry’s sprawling holdings — not only the obvious stuff like censuses, but at esoterica like the family histories, church histories and old society programs squirreled away in the card catalog. However, I freely admit there are days when the sheer volume of material (and quirky search engine) overwhelm me.
That’s when I’m grateful that it is still possible to find online repositories that are focused and personal labors of love, like ConnorsGenealogy.
This is a site maintained by California researcher Pat Connors, and once I get past that fact I honestly don’t know where to begin, there is such a variety of well-organized information here. On the home page, there are regular updates about what’s new and what’s coming up, a very good starting point.
If you are interested in Irish research, this is a great place to visit. There are photos and townland maps, arranged by county. There are also baptisms and marriage listings for Connors/O’Connors and various other surname interests of Pat’s, and even if you’re not related, you’d be surprised what might be in there. For instance, I don’t think I’m related to Pat, but because there happens to be a Troy, N.Y. section to the site, I stumbled across a date for my great-great-grandfather’s declaration of intent.
But even without that, I’d love this site for its wealth of general information about Ireland, its surname registries and the energy that bounces through the entire endeavor. Sites like this have the real-person touch that can help a beginner chart a path that takes them beyond the index-searching stage. Which is where we all need to go, sooner or later.
Having grown up in New Jersey, I’m an old hand at observing our bizarrely fractured PR image. You can be standing on a beautiful mountain trail or biking alongside a serene canal, and meet somebody who still can’t resist weighing in on how tacky Jersey is, seeing as it’s overflowing with Sopranos, Real Housewives and Jersey Shore punks, blah-blah-blah.
“But you’re in New Jersey,” you’ll point out, gesturing at the peaceful, sublime landscape all around.
“Oh, well, I don’t mean this Jersey.”
Of course not. They never do.
They never mean the New Jersey of New Jersey Churchscape, either. Well, their loss. However, if your genealogy path leads to New Jersey, or if you just love knowledgeable discussions of church architecture, you may well wish to pay this lovely site a visit.
Want to see a picture of your ancestors’ church? Try searching the index of photographs of historic churches from all over the state. Interested in learning about a specific church architect? Check to see if there’s an entry in the Architects & Builders index, alphabetized by last name.
There are regular articles on architectural topics. This month’s is “Twins,” all about buildings which share design influences. Or this article about two congregations whose church styles expressed their language of dissent in radically different ways. New Jersey Churchscape also keeps track of endangered buildings which face decay, redevelopment or worst of all, demolition.
I tell you, I have ruined many a Lee Press-On Nail clicking through this site.
Just kidding about the Press-On Nail part. The rest is on the level. The New Jersey Churchscape is a great place to visit.
If you think one of your ancestors was born, or died, or married in New York City, this is for you: a database of New York City vital records containing thousands of entries.
This miracle is made possible by the volunteers of the Genealogy Federation of Long Island. According to the site, members of the Italian and German Genealogy groups have scanned more than 30,000 pages of documents and amassed an online database of over 2,760,000 death certificates. That’s the death certificate index alone. There are also marriage and naturalization databases well worth exploring.
The indexes are easy to search by surname. You can specify exact spelling, Soundex or use a wildcard.
If you search the death index and get a hit, you’ll see a chart showing the person’s last name, first name, age, date of death, the certificate number and the borough that issued the certificate.
The date range covered depends upon the type and location of records. For instance, the death index covers 1891 to 1948. The database is a work in progress, so if someone doesn’t turn up in a search, it’s never a bad idea to check back after several months and see what new updates have been entered.
Thanks to this database, you could order a certificate by mail without springing for a potentially costly search. Or you can go to the Municipal Archives in Manhattan armed with the exact certificate numbers you need, which is a godsend if time is short.
When you click on the link you are initially taken to a page with a stern warning — “No More Databases — Unless.” It’s eye-popping, but makes the point. (Scroll down, and a button takes you to the indexes.) Efforts like this are only possible through goodwill — whether it’s volunteers donating time or well-wishers donating funds.
Face it, not everything can be found in The New York Times.
Actually, some people (um, my dad — cough-cough) have contended that nothing worthwhile could be found in The New York Times, especially if you actually cared about New York City news. As for news north of Westchester? Good luck. So went my father’s opinions about print journalism, as aired on outings to buy the Sunday newspapers at the candy store.
Too bad my Dad didn’t live to see the era of Internet newspaper databases.
Recently I came upon a lovely one for the Altamont Enterprise and the Knowersville Enterprise, two Albany County newspapers. The Guilderland (N.Y.) Public Library coordinated the creation of this database, whose earliest issues date from 1884. Searching it, I was rewarded by a list of public salaries paid by all the towns in the county. My great-grandfather Joseph F. Haigney appeared in it twice, once as a polling place inspector in Watervliet, and another time on a two-day temporary job as a clerk assisting the Canvassing Board. Scraps like this are not big revelations, but I love them. Gather enough of them and your ancestor’s life and times slowly begin to come into focus.
Another amazing resource for useful scraps is the FultonHistory.com New York newspaper database. It encompasses over 12 million pages from a broad variety of newspapers, including the late, lamented Brooklyn Eagle. It’s been pure gold for me, turning up death notices and obituaries for my grandparents, great-grandparents and other kin, plus a news article about one of my great-aunts that’s a whole ‘nother blog post, it’s just that cool. Tom Tryniski, administrator of this resource, deserves a lot of kudos from those who benefit from it — and if you can swing it, some more tangible thank yous (if you’re so inclined, click here).
While I’m not so crazy about its historical interpretations, I love the ending of Martin Scorsese’s epic Gangs of New York, in which two young survivors of 19th-century gang wars and riots stand in a Brooklyn cemetery overlooking lower Manhattan. The narrator muses that as New York rebuilds, he and his friends and their world will be lost in the process, “like no one even knew we was ever here.” Then a montage sweeps by with bridges arching and skyscrapers climbing skyward, as the cemetery fades into oblivion.
Kevin Walsh also feels this pain, and Forgotten New York is a welcome antidote. Walsh is a master at sleuthing out remnants of New York’s past that have miraculously escaped gentrification and modernization. Recently the site spotlighted a gorgeous bishop’s crook lamppost. Now, New York City has been installing bishop’s crook restorations since the 1980s, but this here’s the real deal: an original and functioning post that’s maybe 115 years old. “Catch this crook before the DOT does,” as Walsh says. There are other vintage remnants like bumpy cobbled streets, exposed trolley tracks — and one of my favorites, the fading but still legible ads painted on the sides of many a brick building, hawking products that vanished decades ago.
For the family historian interested in pinpointing street locations, Forgotten New York’s street necrology is well worth a visit. Using his collection of old New York City street guides and maps, Walsh documents streets that have disappeared (or in some cases, still exist as odd little dead-ends or alleyways).
It’s like a virtual walking tour of vintage New York, and if you can’t make it to NYC to catch one of Walsh’s tours in person, you can’t beat a visit to Forgotten New York.
I’m not sure why they collected them in the first place, but I’m really grateful to the long-ago employees of the Burden Iron Works in Troy, N.Y. who amassed a treasure trove of newspaper clippings.
The volunteers of the Troy Irish Genealogy Society have indexed marriage and death notices from this clippings collection. It was here that I found the April 1892 death notice for my great-great-grandmother, Mary Haigney, wife of Martin. It not only pinpointed the dates of her death and funeral; it gave the address where the family was living at the time.
Indexed by last name, the clippings are a cinch to search and a wonderful resource to check out if you have family connections to Troy — whether or not they worked at Burden. For instance, I haven’t yet found evidence that anyone from my family was employed at the ironworks. (Although someone may eventually turn up, since Burden was a major economic player in Troy.) But the death notice was there, luckily for me.
Quick update: I should add that this database was also instrumental in helping me make progress with one of my big brick walls — figuring out where my great-grandfather Joseph (Mary’s son) was in 1900. I wrote about it here.
My mother-in-law’s family emigrated to the United States from Austria in the 19th century; that much was certain. But the Germanic village names on a handwritten family fact sheet presented the spelling confusion that occurs when an American-born child or grandchild writes down what they hear.
In this case, it took only little bit of poking around to figure out that “Tahton” was actually the village of Tadten, and “Halbthurn or Holfturn” meant Halbturn. Both of these places are in the region of southeast Austria called the Burgenland, and isn’t my mother-in-law lucky? The Burgenland Bunch has this area covered, and I mean covered.
The Burgenland Bunch is the brainchild of the late Gerry Berghold, who in 1996 started sharing tips by email with fellow Burgenlander researchers he met on AOL. The first official email newsletter came out in January 1997.
From a simple email newsletter the Burgenland Bunch has morphed into an organization whose extensive website includes archival material, surname query lists, maps and research tips. It has worked in an enthusiastic partnership with officials in present-day Burgenland — in fact, Gerry Berghold and several of the Bunch’s staff were recognized by the Austrian government for their efforts in promoting knowledge and appreciation of the Burgenland.
Gerry Berghold grew and tended the Burgenland Bunch for a decade, retiring from the organization only a month before his death in 2008, five years after being diagnosed with cancer. The Burgenland Bunch goes on due to the efforts of 15 volunteers from the United States and Austria. It’s a remarkable example of international genealogy cooperation, born out of an AOL email loop.