Thursday, December 17, 2009

Minnesota newspapers

Researching family history often relies on newspapers to understand the life and times of our ancestors. Minnesota Territory's Governor Alexander Ramsey knew that, calling them "the day books of history."

Having full issues of Minnesota newspapers in the future is threatened by cutbacks in funding at the Minnesota Historical Society, which has microfilmed them since 1948. For a couple of good articles check the Chaska Herald and MinnPost takes on the situation.

Access on-line is marvelous, but we've all had situations where the content we saw on-line a couple of days or weeks ago is now gone. Preservation is a more staid necessity: if something isn't preserved, it can never be accessed. And just check out on-line versions of the 'same' paper -- they really aren't identical. Some of the best stuff for genealogists is missing.

As a family historian, my wish for Santa is to preserve all Minnesota's newspapers in a way that isn't dependent on electricity, so that our children and grandchildren will have access.


Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Southern Minnesota conference

Here's where to get more information on the Southern Minnesota Genealogical Conference to be held in Mankato on October 24th. This group puts on a great conference!


Thursday, September 10, 2009

Fall meetings

The fall meeting schedule is in full swing! One of the best ways (at least for me!) to figure out a brick wall is to talk to another genealogist, explain exactly what I want and what I've already tried, and listen to he/she tell me what I've overlooked! A slightly different perspective coming from someone with different experience often provides me with ideas I can pursue. And the best way to do that? Go to a conference, make some new friends, listen to the lectures for those new kernels or the old ones you forgot. Here's a couple major conferences for you to check out:

The Minnesota Genealogical Society conference is scheduled for Sept 18-19. More details are available on its website at There are classes on Friday afternoon, a banquet that evening and a full day on Saturday. You can attend parts or all, depending on your schedule. This one will be held in South St. Paul and features Claire Bettag (and she's a wonderful speaker)!

For those of you near Moorhead, you might want to consider the conference to be held held there on September 26, and described at They offer six (that's 6!) concurrent tracks, and if you can't find something to help with your problem, it's a real toughie. This is always one of my favorites, because of the diversity and scope of their program.

If those are too close in time for you to get there, consider the Southern Minnesota Conference October 24th on the campus of Mankato State University. Details are available at The full schedule and program are linked, with .PDFs. Looks like an excellent program, too!

And there are more, too, generally smaller in attendance. If you can't get to a conference, how about checking out a local genealogy group? Exchanging stories face to face is a good way to get motivated and looking at some new ideas!

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Cemetery research and compulsiveness

Many of the questions directed at me involve finding where an ancestor might be buried in Minnesota. "Where would my great-great-grandmother be buried?" While that may sound relatively simple, finding the right cemetery and analyzing all the available information can require dogged research. Lots of us are hooked on cemeteries, love to walk them looking for ancestors, and volunteer for them in some capacity. I've done it all!

Questions about cemetery record transcriptions came up as I was preparing the September 2009 issue of the Minnesota Genealogical Journal, I found some Quartermaster record books in the National Archives microfilm for Fort Snelling. (The September 2009 issue has an article about the cemetery there, and transcriptions of the records.) Fort Snelling was built circa 1820, in an extremely strategic location. It was built where what is now the Minnesota River from the western part of Minnesota pours into the Mississippi River. Years ago, far more than I want to admit, I checked out the burials where Rev. Ezekiel Gear officiated. Besides serving as chaplain at the fort, he also served settlers at Christ Church Episcopal, in St. Paul. That congregation had its own cemetery at the time. The cemetery became a part of what is now Oakland Cemetery, the oldest and largest non-denominational cemetery in St. Paul, founded in 1853.

I was Publications Chair for the Minnesota Genealogical Society, and we had a volunteer who offered to help put together records for Oakland Cemetery. Because I'm compulsive, especially when it comes to understanding the context of what I'm working on, I decided to look at both the records kept by the congregation and those kept at the fort while the early cemetery interment records were transcribed.

One might imagine that the records, at least for the Episcopalians, would match up. They didn't. I could understand that non-Episcopalians would be buried at the Fort or in other places. But during Gear's time as Army chaplain, there were some that showed up in only one of the three places, others that showed up in two, along with some that were in all three. All three sets were original records, kept at the time of death/burial, and yet there were differences!

That discovery, combined with my experience in Maine with multiple transcriptions for my husband's family, convinced me that it was very unlikely that I would ever be able to 'finish' my family research. There would always be more to do, more brick walls, etc. to accompany the never ending multiplication of ancestors. I realized that people make mistakes; people don't always follow through on what they are supposed to do; people misunderstand, misread, misidentify, and set those of us who follow up for chasing the wrong path. It's not intentional, but sometimes those little discrepancies among sources open up fascinating new possibilities.

My latest research note goes through some of the analysis steps for finding the right cemetery, and a couple of the available resources that can help. Sometimes, especially for family, old or abandoned cemeteries, a researcher is dependent on other people's transcriptions. Perhaps the only grave marker was made of wood. Even stones can be damaged or just wear away with time and not photo exists. Vandals can help that process along, too. Finding multiple transcriptions for the same burials was an eye-opener in my research process. More than anything else, it showed me the benefit of a friend's instruction: "Turn over every rock when doing your research. You never know what you may find." Compulsiveness can be good!

Friday, August 28, 2009

Which search engine is "best?"

As Google, Yahoo, and now Bing duke it out to be everyone's search engine of choice, you can now do a blind comparison of the three for yourself.

Visit, enter your search term, and you'll get back a column for each search engine on what was found. The order of the columns changes with each search, but by voting for the one that gave what you consider to be the "best" results, you can find out which is which.

All claim to put the better matches to the top of the results list, but of course that's in the opinion of the software folks and how they decided to evaluate the results against your search terms. Your opinion matters, too. If you find one of them 'thinks' like you do, that search engine might become your first choice when you find a new ancestor!

Not only may you find some references to your family or your current brick wall you didn't know about before, but by experimenting with the search terms you use, you will discover how to choose better search words for each of the three.

Try it! It's kind of fun.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Common sense and census indexes

I'm a firm believer in using all available censuses and the data they contain. But there's also a good reason to use common sense.

Minnesota is home to many different ethnic groups, and has been for centuries. However, if you are researching in Minnesota, be aware that the indexes were not done by people who knew about Minnesota ethnicity. For example, the letter "I" used for 'Indian' as a race indicator looks a little like "J." Under instructions to use full words for the index, the transcriber reported the race to be 'Japanese' for some people were really Dakota Indians. In another, the letter "H" for 'half-breed' was expanded to Hindu for many entries for both Ojibwe and Dakota Indians. In the first case, it was a mis-read of one letter; in the second list, it was choosing the wrong term. Both kinds of errors can mess you up if you don't use a little common sense and look beyond the index.

Of course, it's always worthwhile to look at the original source, but especially if you aren't having luck with the index. If people working with hundreds of entries can make errors like these, what did they do to your ancestor's name or to the remainder of the information they indexed?

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Using the Minnesota State Census Indexes

One of my current projects involves gathering information about the widows and children who fled from the Dakota Indians during the 1862 war. I've been curious about how they rebuilt their lives -- did they return to the Minnesota River valley? if not, where did they go? how did they support themselves? and so on. Because some of the widows remarried quickly, this can be slow going. But it was curious that, while I could find families in the 1857, 1860, and 1870 censuses, I could not find them in the 1865. Why would that family 'disappear' for that census, when there is other evidence the family group remained in Minnesota?

As I gain more experience with the Minnesota State Census Indexes (both at and on the Minnesota Historical Society website), I'm learning that effective use may involve more than the usual options. To understand why some different techniques are needed, it was useful to me to discover how the index was constructed. The indexes for all the State Censuses at were outsourced and created in a very short period of time, from microfilm copies of the census records. MHS's search works a little differently, but is based on the same index database. Fortunately, MHS can make corrections more easily than, and updates to some records have already taken place. There remain other problems, including those resulting from illegible microfilm and unfamiliarity with our ethnic surnames.

One of the larger unresolved problems exists with the 1865 Index, where many records were entered into the index database with no surname at all. If the census taker wrote the family surname for the head of household and only assumed but didn't enter that surname for the rest of the family, the database index has only the given name. Therefore, just entering the surname with a given name for the spouse and children will result in no record found.

For example, let's say the family includes John Doe (head), wife Mary, and children James and Ellen. Searching for Mary Doe on the index will not find her or the children with John. To find her, the search should be based on her given name, the specific census and the most specific location you know. For sure, include the county, and if at all possible the name of the township or village where the family lived. You may be able to find the specific location from the U.S. census for 1860 and 1870. Your result will come back with a blank surname, but you'll have the opportunity to match up each potential match with the right family.

It's unclear when, if ever, this problem will be completely resolved. Don't give up! When you find one of these in your family, you can make a WOTR (Write On The Record) entry to add the surname, which will eventually make it into the MHS index (see my research notes at ).

Good luck in all your searches.