Thursday, May 24, 2012

We Did Genealogy The Old Fashioned Way - We Learned It

If you remember the old Smith Barney commercial featuring the loveable curmudgeon John Houseman, you’ll remember their slogan: “They make money the old fashioned way – they earn it.” Sometimes old ways still can be a valuable training ground for even using new technology.

I find that sometimes when I want to get around problems in Windows, I’ll use the command prompt and type in DOS code and perform functions that would take longer in Windows. The same can be applied with knowing traditional genealogical methods as a base for further research.

One of the problem areas that I find with some of the newer crop of genealogists is that many have only conducted online research and base their conclusions on what can be gleaned via the web. While online records are a Godsend, certain information may only be available in person at a library, archives, court house, or cemetery. While a good number of original documents have been scanned and are currently online, not everything is digitized nor will it be.

In addition, there are numerous errors in the transcriptions of documents. Because of this, sometimes records are missed. I found this to be the case tonight where a record was transcribed based on what the person thought was written in a census record. I frequently see this with my own surname. has my surname listed as the transcription when a careful read of the name shows that it isn’t Owston, but rather Overton. This is most often misapplication of my surname showing in an index.

To their credit, they have started fixing these errors in the 1930 census where my surname was applied to folks not only with the Overton surname, but others named Austin, Burton, Croxton, Onslow, and Outlaw. One of the worst is a 1940 transcription for a family named Armstrong. How someone could read this listing and get Owston out of it defies any logic that can be mustered.

I imaging that a number of these transcribers have not had adequate experience in reading various handwriting styles. Part of deciphering a difficult name is to compare the letters with others entries made by the original scribe. Unfortunately, not many folks are bothering to do things the “old fashioned way” and “learn it.”

Although these are some of the pitfalls of digitization of handwritten records, all is not bad with moving towards the digitizing of as many records of a genealogical nature. I will admit that a number of my brick walls have been broken down with material found on the numerous pay and free sites I have accessed over the past 16 years. I am grateful for finding the following information online:

  • my second great grandfather’s photo and biographical sketch,
  • an additional marriage for this same second great grandfather,
  • a heretofore unknown half-brother of my grandfather that died at age five,
  • my seventh great grandfather’s ecclesiastical problems with the archdeaconry of the East Riding of Yorkshire,
  • the published works of three of my great-grandfather’s first cousins,
  • the death records and burial locations of numerous relatives,
  • the tragic stories that plagued my mother’s distant cousins,
  • and many more too numerous to mention.

Prior to the proliferation of the Internet, all research was conducted not from the comfort and confines of ones own living room or den, it was done by searching through dusty and yellowed records, recording tombstone inscriptions, and accessing published lists found in old genealogical tomes tucked away in the forgotten library stacks. Census records were often viewed on microfilm readers that were not always illuminated with the best and brightest lamps and were nearly always hand cranked. In some unfortunate occasions, you would discover that someone rewound the film backwards.

While it sounds like I am having a bit of cognitive dissonance, I am not; however, the experience I gained from being onsite to review and search records has been invaluable. As an exercise this past weekend, I started jotting down a list of the locations I have visited firsthand for historical and genealogical research and thought I would share it here. While there are numerous other libraries, archives, cemeteries, and court houses where I received documents via the mail, I have only included those that I have personally visited. They will be enumerated first by type and then by state.

Libraries and Archives

District of Columbia
  • Washington: The Library of Congress
  • Washington: The National Archives and Records Administration
  • Chicago Public Library
  • Grayson: Young Library, Kentucky Christian University
  • Louisville Free Public Library
  • New Orleans Public Library
  • College Park: National Archives and Records Administration II
  • Hagerstown: Washington County Free Library
  • Boston Public Library
  • Detroit Public Library
New Hampshire
  • Claremont: Fiske Free Library
  • Concord: New Hampshire State Library
  • Bettsville Public Library
  • Delaware: Delaware County District Library
  • Tiffen-Seneca Public Library
  • Urbana: Champaign County Public Library
  • Bedford: Bedford County Library
  • Bedford: Pioneer Library
  • Carlisle: US Army Military History Institute
  • Connellsville: Carnegie Free Library
  • Franklin Public Library
  • Gettysburg Library
  • Harrisburg: Pennsylvania State Archives
  • Harrisburg: State Library of Pennsylvania
  • McConnellsburg: Fulton County Public Library
  • McKeesport: Carnegie Library of McKeesport
  • McKeesport Heritage Center
  • Meadville: Crawford County Historical Society
  • Oil City Library
  • Pittsburgh: Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh
  • Pittsburgh: Hillman Library, University of Pittsburgh
  • Pittsburgh: Library Resource Facility/Archives Service Center, University of Pittsburgh
  • Pittsburgh: Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum
  • Pittsburgh: Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church
  • Pittsburgh: Western Pennsylvania Genealogical Society
  • Pittsburgh: Western Pennsylvania Historical Society
  • Salt Lake City: Family History Library
  • Salt Lake City Public Library
  • Blacksburg: Newman Library, Virginia Polytechnic University and State University
  • Harrisonburg: Carrier Library, James Madison University
  • Richmond National Battlefield Park
West Virginia
  • Athens: Concord University Library
  • Barboursville: Family History Library
  • Beckley: Raleigh County Memorial Library
  • Beckley: Robert C. Byrd Learning Resource Center, Mountain State University
  • Bethany: T.W. Phillips Memorial Library, Bethany College
  • Charleston: Archives and History Library, The Cultural Center
  • Charleston: Kanawha County Public Library
  • Charleston: US District Court
  • Huntington: Cabell County Public Library
  • Huntington: James E. Morrow Library, Marshall University
  • Huntington: John Deaver Drinko Library, Marshall University
  • Institute: Drain-Jordan Library, West Virginia State University
  • Morgantown: West Virginia & Regional History Collection, West Virginia University
  • Oak Hill Public Library
  • Parkersburg & Wood County Public Library
  • Point Pleasant: Mason County Public Library
  • Salem: Benedum Resource Learning Center, Salem International University
  • Sissonville: Family History Library
  • South Charleston: Marshall University Graduate College Library

Court Houses and Town Repositories

  • Washington County
  • Wayne County
New Hampshire
  • City of Claremont
New Jersey
  • Essex County
  • Belmont County
  • Champaign County
  • Delaware County
  • Seneca County
  • Allegheny County
  • Bedford County
  • Franklin County
  • Fulton County
  • Venango County
  • Town of Weathersfield
West Virginia
  • Kanawha County
  • Logan County
  • Raleigh County

Cemeteries by Location

(These are only listed by town. In many cases, there are multiple cemeteries for each location – for example, there were probably 20 cemeteries accessed for Pittsburgh alone.)

  • Norwich, New London County
  • Chicago, Cook County
  • Grayson, Carter County
  • Abita Springs, St. Tammany Parish
  • New Orleans, Orleans Parish
  • Hancock, Washington County
  • Kansas City, Jackson County
New Hampshire
  • Claremont, Sullivan County
New Jersey
  • East Orange, Essex County
  • Barberton, Summit County
  • Butler, Richland County
  • Canton, Stark County
  • Dayton, Montgomery County
  • Delaware, Delaware County
  • Fostoria, Seneca County
  • Norton, Summit County
Ancestral Location of my Mother's family
  • Bethel Township, Fulton County
  • Brackenridge, Allegheny County
  • Bridgeville, Allegheny County
  • Carrick, Allegheny County
  • Connellsville, Fayette County
  • Coraopolis, Allegheny County
  • Crafton, Allegheny County
  • Dayton, Armstrong County
  • Delmont, Westmoreland County
  • Dravosburg, Allegheny County
  • Elizabeth Borough, Allegheny County
  • Elizabeth Township, Allegheny County
  • Forward Township, Allegheny County
  • Homestead, Allegheny County
  • Hopwood, Fayette County
  • Irwin, Westmoreland County
  • Johnstown, Cambra County
  • Lodi, Butler County
  • Madley, Bedford County
  • McKeesport, Allegheny County
  • Meadville, Crawford County
  • Monongahela, Washington County
  • Munhall, Allegheny County
  • Natrona Heights, Allegheny County
  • New Brighton, Beaver County
  • North Braddock, Allegheny County
  • North Huntingdon, Westmoreland County
  • North Versailles, Allegheny County
  • Oil City, Venango County
  • Penn Hills, Allegheny County
  • Pleasant Hills, Allegheny County
  • Plum Boro, Allegheny County
  • Pittsburgh, Allegheny County
  • Reserve Township, Allegheny County
  • Saltsburg, Indiana County
  • Sewickley, Allegheny County
  • Smicksburg, Indiana County
  • Thompson Township, Fulton County
  • Washington, Washington County
  • West Elizabeth, Allegheny County
  • White Oak, Allegheny County
  • Wilkinsburg, Allegheny County
West Virginia
  • Beckley, Raleigh County
  • Berkeley Springs, Morgan County
  • Bethany, Brooke County
  • Elkview, Kanawha County
  • Fayetteville, Fayette County
  • Grantsville, Calhoun County
  • Hometown, Putnam County
  • Leon, Mason County
  • Lewisburg, Greenbrier County
  • Manila, Boone County
  • Parkersburg, Wood County
  • Pecks Mill, Logan County
  • Princeton, Mercer County
  • Arlington, Arlington County
  • Charlottesville (independent city)
  • Culpeper, Culpeper County
  • Fredericksburg (independent city)
I am amazed at the sheer number of locations I’ve visited since 1978 and am glad that much of this was accomplished when gasoline was less expensive. For some sites, I’ve only visited once, such as the Detroit and Chicago public libraries. The three most frequented locations include the National Archives’ main location at least 25 times, the Cultural Center in Charleston, WV (about 30 times) and the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh in the neighborhood of 100 times.

Much of my research centered on families from Western Pennsylvania; however, this library’s Pennsylvania Department has excellent materials from outside the region it serves. It is also the repository for the records of the Western Pennsylvania Genealogical Society and holds the microfiche for all of birth and death records for Allegheny County prior to 1906. It is also the first library I visited in searching my own family’s roots in 1978. It was here that I learned first hand from the librarians how to conduct genealogical research and what records were the best to consult.

Only by searching onsite was I able to find information on children that were not recorded elsewhere as well as other golden nuggets of information. It is how I discovered the actual identity of my great grandmother as our family had recorded her name incorrectly and she was my most recent brick wall. When her name was correctly ascertained, it opened up a world of colonial New England ancestors including four patriots. That trip to the National Archives was one of my most productive.

Today if a road trip is planned, I utilize what information I can find online to maximize the trip to its potential. I determine what may or may not be available. If looking for old newspapers for obituaries, I have the dates in advance. Most times, I always find something on the individuals for whom I am searching. Good luck and good hunting in the vast genealogical wasteland away from Internet civilization.


  1. I do love road trips and researching vertical files and other 'non-internet' items. I recently talked with a co-worker who has started doing genealogy. She is always complaining that there is nothing on her ancestors. No death records etc...
    Where does she look? Only on Ancestry. I have a hard time explaining to her that it is not all online, but she is not interested in using any of the other traditional methods. Very frustrating...
    Theresa (Tangled Trees)

  2. Theresa:

    You are correct - you have to get out there and search the records where they reside. Even secondary sources found tucked away in the stacks can be a wealth of information that can generate leads.


  3. Relevant insights. It's really a mix of the physical and digital when it comes to proper data integration, since a lot of significant texts, especially for that purpose, are not only still on print, and do not get their value from their technical form. So, generational data can't just rely on transmutation of raw info, but must be supported by proof as well. Plus scanning carries evidence through miles without pressures of storage or freight.

    Roberta Scott @ Spectrum Information