Category Archives: Research Guides

When the Ancestor Trail Leads to a New Locale, Take Your Research Plan with You!

When was the last time you decided to go on a vacation? You got up one morning, jumped in the car and headed out on the highway with no plan, no map and no idea about where you were going?

Probably not any time recently, and likely never at all – even pre-pandemic days.

Efficient genealogical research requires the same careful planning, particularly when your ancestral trail has moved into a totally new locale and taken you out of your research comfort zone.

I’m not talking about moving from one town to another nearby, or even to a new county (although that should create at least a mini-plan.)

I’m referring to family who pulled up stakes and moved far away from friends, family and home. I recently read the story of my ancestor’s Massachusetts brother, who abandoned his wife and children – in the 1600s – and ran off to Virginia to begin a new life for himself.  I can tell you from personal experience that researching Virginia records is nothing like researching in Massachusetts.

When I learned that my great grandmother’s family emigrated from Sweden to Denmark and then to Maine, there was a big learning curve when it came to Scandinavian records.

Finally, when my husband’s family started their westward trek and settled in areas with no birth or death records plus spotty marriage records, I experienced another learning curve, navigating less common collections that might fill in some of the vital record gaps.

Yes, there are similar kinds of records created in towns and counties all over the world, but that doesn’t mean that all exist everywhere or that they are housed in the same types of repositories. Or that they are even accessible to the public due to governmental restrictions.

Just as we would leave on a vacation with a plan and some maps, we need to set out on a new ancestral trail having done some preparation beforehand.

A strong research plan has more than one part and several smaller steps needed along the way. Before we look at a complete plan, I want to stress that NOT every part or every step is needed each time you research in a new place.

The key word is NEW. How new is it? A new county in the same state requires much less pre-preparation than landing in a new country where one doesn’t even speak the language.

However, let’s assume that our research trail has led us down the road to a totally new environment.

How do we begin? As difficult as it is, contain your excitement (or dread) about this new research experience. Planning makes the research process much easier and way more efficient.

Create a research guide!

Survey the scene. Jump in, but not by looking for your ancestor. Dig around to learn the types of records available. An excellent first stop is the FamilySearch wiki, which will provide an excellent overview of the types of records available. Don’t stop there, though! Look for local libraries, archives, historical and genealogical societies. Are there Facebook pages? The link above will take you to my post, which outlines the information to be included in a complete research guide.

Create a research question.

Once you know the lay of the land, it is time to create your research question. Ultimately, you’ll want to know everything there is to learn about your ancestor while he/she lived in that place. However, a research question needs to be more carefully defined and multiple research questions can be formulated at once.

What records will help you answer your research question?

If I was tracking a family on their westward move in the U.S., for example, my first research question in the new location would be “When did Ancestor X arrive there?” That would limit my first searches to land deeds/grants records and tax lists, if they exist. I wouldn’t be flailing around the marriage records or court records, hoping their surname appeared. Don’t forget to create a “to do” list of all the sources that might help answer your research question.

Keep a log of the records in which you’ve searched.

Add notes to indicate what you found (e.g. in tax lists for 1809, 1810, 1814, etc.) and also what wasn’t found (e.g. not in tax lists before 1809.) This is important for two reasons. First, what if you run out of time and don’t finish reading the records? Your notes will remind you where you looked and what was found when you return to finish reading. Second, newly discovered sources might appear. Perhaps you learn that the local library maintains vertical files for early settlers and their families and you can’t remember if you knew about/looked at the source already.

Mini-analyze as you go through the records.

As you are researching, you should be doing at least a mini-analysis of each nugget of information you find. Does the record pertain to your ancestor/family? Did multiple family units settle in the same place? Is the surname common, raising the possibility that some records might not pertain to anyone in your own family line? Were their two or more distinct men or women living there at the same time? Finally, does the record pertain to your research question? If it does, continue on. If not, and it’s a BSO (bright, shiny object) distracting you, make note of that record so you can return to it another time.

Thoroughly analyze your findings.

Next, after you have recorded your findings, do a much deeper analysis. Basically, you have created a pile of puzzle pieces. How do the pieces fit together? Are there pieces that have no place in your puzzle? Perhaps you have John Miller, born c1776, and you find him in the 1850 census. You also find his name on a jury list in 1870. While it’s possible your John Miller was still living, it’s highly unlikely that a 94 year old man would be serving on a jury at any time. That John Miller might be a son or grandson or a collateral relative. He might also just be another John Miller, totally unrelated to your family.  That puzzle piece should be set aside because it doesn’t fit.

Draw a conclusion.

The final step is to draw conclusions. Have you answered your research question, to a reasonable degree, based on the hard evidence that you have found. Let’s go back to my hypothetical question – when did my Ancestor X arrive in his new home? Two pieces of evidence I might have found are lists which show he was taxed there not before 1809, but consistently after that date, and a land deed, also dated 1809, showing that he purchased land for the first time in that place. My conclusion would be that Ancestor X arrived in the new locale no later than 1809 and perhaps by 1808, as he might have settled there after the tax collector made his rounds in the spring. Land deeds and tax lists are solid evidence – primary records created at the time – that my 1808-1809 conclusion is valid.

Perhaps your research question is only partially answered. Review possible resources available that you initially overlooked to be sure you haven’t missed an important record set. Your research guide will come in handy!

Repeat this process as many times as needed as you work through your list of research questions! It gets easier and more automatic with practice.

Happy Hunting!

Creating a Genealogy Research Guide

I have a question for you. When you find an ancestor has a connection to a completely-new-to-you place, genealogically speaking, how do you prepare to tackle this new location? Or do you just jump in and hope for the best?

Jumping in unprepared isn’t usually the most efficient way to go about your research, particularly if this new location is blessed with many historical records.

An efficient researcher needs a plan of attack and that plan is called a research guide. A research guide isn’t necessary for every new location that pops up in your family tree. If you are seeking, say, a single marriage record or a few land deeds, your time is better spent going for it. However, if it becomes evident that an ancestor/family has deep connections to a city, county or state, then a research guide will save you time in the long run and help ensure a thorough search of local records and repositories.

A research guide isn’t hard to create, but it does take a bit of time. Here are some ideas to help you create a unique research guide. Not all of the items in this list will pertain to your family. Pick and choose the ones that fit:

  1. Identify a location where you have a need to research family.
  2. Write a short summary about the history of the town or county. When was it formed? Is the area known for certain kinds of jobs? What is the climate like? Is it in the mountains, flat land, on a river or lake? Who were the original settlers? Did anything famous (or infamous) happen while your family lived there? Are the inhabitants of one ethnic background or was the community more diverse when your ancestors lived there?
  3. Create a timeline of important events during the period in which your person or family lived there.
  4. Locate a map of the area. (Print it out or save it at home.) If you can find a map of the town to mark exactly where your ancestors lived, save that one. Google Maps works for streets and houses still in existence.
  5. In what county is the town located? Was it always in that county?
  6. Where are the following records located for the town? Birth, marriage and death records, religious records (if applicable to your family), tax lists, voter registrations, military enlistments, land deeds, probate records, national, state and local censuses? Is there a record loss at the town and/or county level? Where are the town clerk’s office and county courthouses? How can you contact them? Will they do look ups for you or must you visit in person or hire a researcher?
  7. Are there any unique record collections in the town that relate to your family?
  8. What newspapers were published when they lived there? Are they accessible today?
  9. What libraries are local to your town? Are there any genealogy or historical societies in your town/county?
  10. Where is the county archives located? (if there is one) Where is the state archives located?
  11. What national libraries and/or record collections might have information about your town? (Library of Congress, Family History Library, DAR Library, etc.)
  12. Are there family members to contact about the ancestors you are targeting in this project?
  13. Have town or county local histories been published? When and are they digitized and online?
  14. Are there historical photos online for your town? Where would you look for them? (Library of Congress, Google images, eBay vintage postcards, etc.
  15. Is anything known about the migration waves related to your town that might have affected your ancestor?
  16. What was the political climate at the time?
  17. Check the FamilySearch research wiki for your town/county. Is it listed in the catalog? What other resources are available to help you in your search?

Here is a research guide I created for myself for Passaic, New Jersey:

  1. Identify a city or town where you have or need to research family: PASSAIC, New Jersey
  2. Write a paragraph about the history of the town. When was it created? Is the area known for certain kinds of jobs? What is the climate like? Is it in the mountains, flat land, on a river or lake? Who were the original settlers? Did anything famous (or infamous) happen while your family lived there? Are the inhabitants one ethnic background or was the community more diverse when your ancestors lived there?   Passaic was original settled by the Dutch in the 1600s, but didn’t incorporate as a city until 1873. However, the ethnic makeup of its residents changed dramatically from that time on and Passaic became a city settled by waves of immigrants beginning about 1880. The Slovaks, my family, first arrived in America about 1889. As I’ve since learned, my grandparents were part of an ethnic minority called Carpatho-Rusyns. Although they never had a homeland of their own, they settled in eastern Europe by the 600s. At the time immigration to the U.S. began, most Carpatho-Rusyns were living in Galicia, then part of Poland, eastern Slovakia, around Presov, and part of Ukraine. They brought their language, culture and religion with them to Passaic and even the second and third generations remained tightly knit as an ethnic group.
  3. Create a timeline of important events during the period in which your person or family lived there.

1889 – first Slovaks arrive in the U.S. and many settle in PA, OH and Passaic, NJ

1890-1910 – peak years for Slovak settlement in Passaic, drawn to the factories

1914-1918 – World War I

1924 – U.S. began to severely restrict immigration under the new  Immigration Act

4. Locate a map of the area. (Print it out or save it at home.) If you can find a map of the town to mark exactly where your ancestors live, save that one. Google works for streets and houses still in existence.

Slovak immigrants all settled in the neighborhood of St. Michael’s Greek Catholic Church at 96 First Street, living either in the neighborhood directly around the church or across the Passaic River in nearby Garfield.

St. Michael’s Church, 96 First Street – Red Pin

5. In what county is the town located? Was it always in that county? Passaic is in Passaic County and always has been.

6. Where are the following records located for the town? Birth, marriage and death records, religious records (if applicable to your family), tax lists, voter registrations, military enlistments, land deeds, probate records, national, state and local censuses? Is there a record loss at the town and/or county level? Where are the town clerk’s office and county courthouses? How can you contact them? Will they do lookups for you or must you visit in person or hire a researcher? All records can be requested via mail except land records.

Tax records – not available
Military records – not available and none of the family served in U.S. military

New Jersey Bureau of Vital Statistics (from 1917 to present)
P.O. Box 370
Trenton, New Jersey 08625
Telephone: 609-292-4087 (information)
Telephone: 609-633-2860 (to order records)
Fax: 609-392-4292

NJ State Archives (before 1917)
P.O. Box 307
Trenton, NJ 08625-0307

County Courthouse – won’t do searches for land deeds; must hire a title search company!

Voter Registrations: Destroyed by clerks; not required to keep under NJ

Federal Census Records: Censuses available 1900-1940, which covers Slovak immigration

State Census Records:

1895 – https://search.ancestry.com/search/db.aspx?dbid=1054
1905 – https://search.ancestry.com/search/db.aspx?dbid=61557
1915 – https://search.ancestry.com/search/db.aspx?dbid=61558

Church Records: 973 area code; zip code 07055;

Possible churches where baptisms, marriages and burials took place:
Cathedral of St. Michael the Archangel, 96 First Street, Passaic, 777-2553

St. Mary of the Assumption Church, 63 Monroe Street, Passaic, 779-0427

St. John the Baptist Russian Orthodox Church, 170 Lexington Ave., Passaic, 473-1928

St. Nicholas Ukrainian Catholic Church, 217 President St., Passaic, 473-7197

7. Are there any unique record collections in the town that relate to your family? None of which I am aware.

8. What newspapers were published when they lived there? Are they accessible today?

The Passaic Herald News is on microfilm at Passaic Public Library, but it must be used in person. Newspapers.com has recently added the Passaic Herald News to its collection.

9. What libraries are local to your town? Are there any genealogy or historical societies in your town/county?

Passaic Public Library, 195 Gregory Ave., Passaic, 779-0474

Passaic County Historical Society, at Lambert Castle, 3 Valley Road, Paterson, NJ 07503 | Phone (973) 247-0085 | Email info@lambertcastle.org

The PCHS also has a genealogy club.

WorldCat – locations of books on Carpathian-Rusyns
Google Books – list of titles about Rusyns

10. Where are the county archives located? (if there is one) Where are the state archives located?

The Passaic County “archives” only houses press releases, budget items, etc.

 New Jersey State Archives, 225 W State St, Trenton, NJ 08608

11. What national libraries and/or record collections might have information about your town? (Library of Congress, Family History Library, DAR Library, etc.)

Library of Congress

Family History Library

New Jersey State Library – https://www.njstatelib.org/

12. Are there family members to contact about the ancestors you are targeting in this project?

Distant cousins, mostly through DNA matches

13. Have town or county local histories been published? When and are they digitized and online?

History of Passaic and Its Environs, William W. Scott – https://archive.org/details/historyofpassaic01scot

 Cathedral of St. Michael the Archangel, 75th Anniversary Book (1965) – I own a copy.

 The Passaic County history was published in 1882, before the Slovak migration began.

14. Are there historical photos online for your town? Where would you look for them? (Library of Congress, Google images, eBay vintage postcards, etc.)

eBay
Google images
Library of Congress – https://www.loc.gov/search/?in=&q=passaic&new=true&st=

15. Is anything known about the migration waves related to your town that might have affected your ancestor?

Only that Slovaks became acclimated and assimilated into American life and were replaced by mostly Hispanic immigrants. Before the Slovaks came the Irish and Germans.

16. What was the political climate at the time? Slovaks migrated for the economic opportunities. They were not persecuted because religion or ethnic bias. World War I caused difficulties communicating with family members, as Slovakia only existed as part of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire.

17. Check the FamilySearch research wiki for your town. Is it listed in the catalog? What other resources are available to help you in your search? There is a wiki page for Passaic County.

From the information I collected about Passaic and its history (and typed into Word), I can format my research guide as I please – copy and paste, add to, or eliminate unnecessary information. It is also simple to update.

It took me less than an hour to answer all the questions, but I have a general understanding of the history of Passaic, know where local repositories are that will likely be of the most help and will probably stumble across several others as I delve into my research.

If you haven’t ever created a research guide, I highly recommend it!