Saturday, April 30, 2011

Research Tip : Hidden Layers in Old County Histories

During your family history research you probably have encountered one or more of the old county histories or "mug books" as we sometimes call them.  They may have a certain amount of early history of the area followed by hundreds of biographies of some of the local citizens.  These written portraits may have been the starting point for some of your family groups, and we wish that there were sketches like these for all of our families.

Those histories that cover multiple counties may have hidden layers of information.  I'm reminded of such a case with the addition to the Local History Collection of the third volume of  the Portrait and Biographical Record of Kalamazoo, Allegan and Van Buren Counties, Michigan, published in 1892 by Chapman Brothers of Chicago.  "But, there is only one volume," you might say.  Not true.  Most researchers who have looked at this book on the shelf or online don't realize that there were in fact three editions of this book published, one for each of the three counties, and all with unique content.

This explained one of the mysteries that I had with our collection...we had the book and a separate index to it.  But, the index pages didn't match the book.  Now I know it was because we had the Van Buren edition of the book, and the index to the Kalamazoo edition.  Since then, we have acquired all three editions, with 1144, 986 and 946 pages, respectively.  The Allegan edition, the volume we just acquired, was very difficult to locate and apparently the rarer of the three.

In 2007, I wrote a two-part article for the Van Buren Echoes, quarterly of the Van Buren Regional Genealogical Society, about the these volumes and the differences between them.  Included was a combined biographical index of all three volumes, showing which biographies were included in which volume(s).  Some were published in all three, some in only two or one.  The article is available to read in Volumes 20 & 21 online, with your VBRGS membership.

What's online?  Google Books does reference all three volumes, but none of them are viewable.  Ancestry appears to only have the Van Buren edition, as does the Internet ArchiveMichigan County Histories apparently only has the Kalamazoo edition.  To find out what libraries have the respective volumes in their collections, search for the title on World Cat.

I suspect that if the Kalamazoo, Allegan, Van Buren history has multiple editions, so do other histories published during that era.  This is something to keep in mind as you leave no stone unturned in search of information about your ancestors.

Every-name indexes for all three volumes are being developed and added to the collection's Local History Master Index (LHMI), available to visitors to the library.  For any questions, contact the Local History department.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Online Hint : Plenty of Free Content on Subscription Databases (Part 2)

Continuing with our discussion about free content on subscription websites...Footnote is quickly becoming another of the heavy hitters in the online genealogical community.  Some of their strengths include newspapers (Chicago is one that I've enjoyed), National Archives military & land files, and city directories. 

As with Ancestry, Footnote offers a 7-day free trial.  At the home page enter a name of interest in the search box at the top of the page (last name first), and a hit list of databases will display.  At the right of that display page is the link for a free trial.  Also as with Ancestry, you will need to provide an e-mail address and credit card information.  They indicate in fine print that you will not be billed until the 7-day period ends, so remember to cancel your trial before the full seven days is up if you don't wish to subscribe.

Without the free trial, there are still some databases that you can access for free.  Among some of the larger ones are:
  1. Papers of the Continental Congress
  2. South Carolina Estate Inventories, 1732-1872
  3. Social Security Death Index (SSDI)
  4. WWII Army Enlistment Records
  5. Civil War Widows Pensions
  6. Select Photo Collections
  7. Select Town Records
American Ancestors (was New England Ancestors) is a subscription database sponsored by the New England Historic Genealogical Society (NEHGS).  They recently changed the name of their magazine and their website to reflect the fact that their scope has grown beyond the limits of just New England states.  Their subscription rate is much less than most sites, an annual single membership being a reasonable $79.95 which includes not only online access, but a subscription to their magazine and genealogical quarterly.  Without a subscription there is also some useful information.  Along the top of the page, there is a "Free Account" button.  The free account includes access to 10 databases including:
  1. New England Ancestors magazines
  2. New York Wills, 1626-1836
  3. Index of Revolutionary War Pensioners
  4. Massachusetts Vital Records to 1850
You also have access to the NEHGS library catalog, The Online Genealogist by David Allen Lambert where you may submit a questions, and the Learning Center that has online seminars, with getting started tips & articles.

A few minutes ago, I spoke with a representative of World Vital Records (WVR) and I asked the question about free content.  First of all, WVR works a little differently in that they work with "affiliates" that allow their users to make searches and link to their sites.  So, some of the search results link to outside websites that may be free access.  Another tip that the rep shared with me is to periodically check their list of Recently Added Databases.  Oftentimes when a new database is first added, they will have free access for up to seven days.  And, as with the others, WVR offers a 7-day free trial.

The other thing that applies to some free trials to any site is that once you sign up for one, you may be offered a special new subscription rate at a lesser cost than the normal one, to entice you to join.

There are lots of other subscription sites around that aren't addressed here, but with any of them explore the possibility of free trials, free content, special subscription rates, or access at your local library.  Don't be afraid to e-mail them and ask "What can you offer me that will make me want to try your subscription?"  You might stumble into a special unadvertised offer.  No need to mortgage the house yet...

Friday, April 22, 2011

Online Hint : Plenty of Free Content on Subscription Databases (Part 1)

In addition to, the country's mostly widely known genealogy website, there are a host of other subscription sites emerging - enough that we would all need a second mortgage on our homes to subscribe to them.

I have to admit that I bit the bullet and subscribed to Ancestry and I've also had subscriptions to Footnote and to New England Ancestors (now American Ancestors).  The three of them together, even with attractive new subscriber offers, totaled over $325.00 annually.  There are several more that I've read about and wonder if they would offer unique content useful to my family history research.  Too much investment for one individual...

There are a couple of ways around some of the costs, however.  First of all, most of the "heavy hitters" offer a free trial period whereby you can sign up using your name, e-mail, and sometimes credit card number, to embark on a 7-14 day free trial of portions of the site.  The credit card number is a risk, so make sure the site is reputable, but usually the only real risk involved is that of forgetting to cancel the subscription after your free trial period is up.  In the case of Ancestry, when that period elapses your card is automatically charged for the subscription, no notice given. 

I'm not knocking free trials.  In fact, it's the best way to find out if you want to make the investment for a subscription.  You can browse the list categories and databases and you can also take some of your favorite ancestral names out for what I call a "litmus test."  Try using some of your less common names (no Smith's or Jones') to avoid getting prematurely frustrated. 

Don't forget to check the public libraries near you.  For example, the Van Buren District Library in Decatur offers free to its patrons at any of its seven locations Ancestry Library Edition.  Also, at the Decatur branch, American Ancestors is available.  Anyone that visits the library may access them at any public computer.  Other libraries in our area offer other databases. 

The thing that many researchers don't realize is that most of these subscription sites have free content.  You are able to make searches and when you review the hit list, you will see some free things sprinkled throughout, allowing you to view the results without a subscription. is certainly the biggest example of this.  Simply go to their home page where you will see the free trial information, and along the top are some buttons.  Click on Search which takes you to a search screen entitled "Search for records about your ancestors".  Plug your names into the search boxes (remembering to keep your searches simple), and you will be rewarded with a hit list of databases.  Many of the databases have a picture of a little lock next to them.  Those are the results that you can't view without a subscription.  You will also see some with a little picture of a white page next to them.  Any of those can be viewed for free.  There are dozens of free databases in Ancestry, but to name some of the bigger ones:
  • U.S. 1880 Census Index (no images)
  • 1881 England Census
  • Ontario, Canada, Marriages 1801-1928
  • Quebec Vital Records (Drouin Collection), 1621-1967
  • WWI Draft Registration Cards
  • U.S. WWII Army Enlistment Records
  • U.S. Naturalization Index, 1791-1992
Simply click on a record of interest, and you will come to a page that reads "View Free Records With a Free Account," where you are prompted to enter your name and e-mail address.  No credit card required. 

Next time, we'll talk about free content on some of the other subscriptions sites such as Footnote, World Vital Records, and American Ancestors.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Collection Highlight : Rural School Souvenir Cards

While cataloging the latest batch of goodies to be added to the Bess Britton Michigan One-Room Schoolhouse Collection, I came across several more school Souvenir Cards, a somewhat rare and unique piece of rural school history.
Souvenir cards were typically bi-fold, sometimes quad-fold, perhaps with ornamentation along the edges and a corded tie.  They were a formal presentation from the teacher to the community, oftentimes with a picture of him or her on the front. 

Inside are listings of the currently enrolled students and sometimes names of the presiding school board members or Board of Directors. 

These type of school memorabilia were created from the late 1800's well into the twentieth century, providing a "snapshot" of rural school history that in some cases may not survive in any other form.  Surviving school attendance, census, and operational records are scant for most Michigan rural schools, and what has survived may very well still be in private hands or in antique shops.  Unfortunately, many of the school ledgers and records have been destroyed or lost. 

Souvenir cards are very useful in the quest to identify Michigan's 7,000+ rural schools, almost all of which are now gone or converted to other uses.  Did you or your parents/grandparents attend a rural Michigan school?  Do you have one of these Souvenir Cards in your attic chest of prized mementos?  Consider donating a color copy (or the original) to the Bess Britton Michigan One Room Schoolhouse Collection, an archives of Michigan school memorabilia representing 4,500+ schools, housed at the Van Buren District Library

To view the collection and search it's every-name index, visit the library anytime during its regular business hours.  For more information about how to donate Souvenir Cards or other rural school history, contact the Local History Department.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Upcoming Event : The Life of WWI Soldier David Sutfin of Van Buren County

The Van Buren Regional Genealogical Society (VBRGS) is pleased to sponsor "The Life of World War I Soldier David Sutfin From Van Buren County" to be presented by Steve Rossio, Portage District Library Local Historian, Monday, April 25, 7 p.m. at the Webster Memorial Library in Decatur.

David Sutfin, a former Hamilton Township youth, was born in 1898 the son of William & Maude Sutfin.  When the call came for the "War to End All Wars", David became a member of the 32nd Division, 126th Infantry.  He was killed during service in France in 1918.  His life was one of countless sacrifices made by Southwest Michigan families. The program will give us an inside look at David's early life in Van Buren County and his subsequent service to his country, allowing a glimpse not only into his life but that of other families facing similar circumstances of the WWI era. 

In addition to his career at the Portage District Library, Steve Rossio has a keen interest in military history.  He is a member of the Michigan Historical Society, the Michigan One-Room Schoolhouse Association, the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War, and participates in Civil War reenactments.  His portrayal of the life of an army infantryman should be both entertaining and insightful.

The program is open to the public.  Also that evening at 6 p.m. will be a Family History Essentials mini-class entitled " About Newspapers and Their Importance in Genealogy Research".  Plan to come early and spend some time in the Local History Collection of the Van Buren District Library.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Frequently Asked Question : Why Can't I Find Where My Ancestor is Buried?

One of the most common family history research challenges is locating the burial location and tombstone of our ancestors.  When asked this question in the Local History department, my first question to the researcher always is, "What Have You Tried So Far?"

Many times we think we are up against a brick wall when in fact all we need to do is to take a moment to review what we know so far, how we know it, and expand our search to include other resources.  For instance, perhaps we know from the census that our subject, John Smith, lived in a particular township for at least 25 years before his death.  The death record indicates that he died in that same township, so certainly he must be buried there.  However, a walk through the nearest cemetery to his farm showed no tombstone for a John Smith.  What are some of the reasons this might be the case:

  1. There are other cemeteries in the vicinity
  2. John may be buried in said cemetery, but without a legible tombstone or in an unmarked grave
  3. John might be buried with his first wife who died and was buried before he moved to the area
  4. John might have been buried in an unexpected cemetery in an extra lot in the family plot of one of his children, parents, siblings
  5. Did John serve in the military anytime during or since the Civil War?  Perhaps he is buried in a National Cemetery.  Did Veterans Affairs pay for his tombstone, burial?
  6. Perhaps John was buried on the farm before state law required burial in an established cemetery
  7. Perhaps John was cremated
  8. What was John's economic status?  Was he buried in a pauper's grave or at the poorhouse?
  9. Do you know enough about John's background?  Could his birth name actually of been Johann Smyth and that's the name that's on his tombstone?
  10. Do you have reliable death information, date & location?
  11. Have you checked religious cemeteries in the area, i.e., Catholic or Jewish?
So, with all of these variables what can be done to make a thorough search for John's burial location?
  1. Obtain all versions of the death certificate.  In Michigan, there were three:  county, state & local.   State & local versions of the death certificate gave burial information as early as 1900 whereas county records didn't provide that information until about 1935.
  2. Obtain all versions of the obituary/death notice in the newspaper.  Brief mention may be made in one issue while the more complete obituary may be published a week or two later.  Obituaries may have been published in more than one newspaper - and they may be entirely different.
  3. Check for a probate file.  In the receipts/expenses portion of the file may be notations of the purchase of a burial plot.
  4. If a military person, obtain copies of the military and/or pension files that may make mention of final disposition of the body; check the National Gravesite Locator published by the Department of Veterans Affairs
  5. Burial permits filed at the local level
  6. Canvas a wider area of cemetery records
  7. Locate burial records for the original cemetery to check for an unmarked burial
  8. Try FindAGrave, one of the largest online sources of burial information
  9. Connect with other living descendants who may have personal knowledge of John's burial
  10. Check with existing funeral homes in the vicinity
 Always consult libraries with local history collections in the immediate area.  They may have indexes or publications that will aid you in your search.  For example, the Van Buren District Library has published a checklist of all of the cemeteries in Southwest Michigan (Allegan, Berrien, Cass, Kalamazoo, St. Joseph & Van Buren counties).  The list includes the name of the cemetery, the township & county, identifies tombstone readings & burial records and whether the records are included in their collection.  They have also begun adding these records to their Local History Master Index (LHMI) which will ultimately index all burials in the region. 

Saturday, April 9, 2011

New on the Shelf : 1877 Van Buren County Business Directory

Ah, the wonders of Ebay...There has been no better source in the last decade for unusual and rare local history items.  The latest find is the 1877 Business Directory of Paw Paw, Decatur, Lawrence, Bangor, Lawton and Mattawan.  Although only 32 pages, it is truly a treasure of 19th century Van Buren County history.

Many of the pages are filled with advertisements, ranging in size from 1/5 to a whole page, for local businesses.  Examples include:

  • R. O. Beebe, Insurance Agent - Paw Paw
  • John Struble Harness Shop - Decatur
  • Tillou & Olin, Lawrence Mills - Lawrence
  • H. E. Jennings, Dentist - Bangor
  • W. F. Dailey, Blacksmithing - Mattawan
  • Kinney, Adams & Co., Merchants - Lawton
There is also a business directory for each of the five communities, divided by categories such as:
  • Attorneys at Law
  • Barbers
  • Boots & Shoes
  • Carriages, Wagons & Sleighs
  • Cigar Manufacturers
  • Insurance
  • Millinery
  • Photographers
  • Undertakers
  • Tin Ware
  • Justices of the Peace
For Paw Paw, there is a list of officers for the village, the county, and some lodges.  There is also a list of churches.

Directories for the late 1800's are rare, the only other individual directory known to exist for Van Buren County prior to 1900 is the Van Buren County Gazetteer and Business Directory published in 1869.  Although, there are some business listings in the county's 1860, 1873 & 1895 plat books.  South Haven is the only town in the county known to have had it's own city directories, and to date the only known early one is the W. A. Norton directory of South Haven, Casco, and Covert, 1898-1900.

This 1877 directory is extremely rare and may be the only one left in existence.  This, and all of the others listed in this post, may be viewed in the Local History Collection of the Van Buren District Library.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Van Buren County in World War II [work in progress]

Van Buren County's WWII generation will be highlighted in a book project entitled Van Buren County in World War II, sponsored by the Van Buren Regional Genealogical Society (VBRGS).

Work on the project began in 2008, and it is an ambitious effort to document Van Buren County's participation in WWII, both at home and on the military fronts.   For those in military service, a wide variety of resources are being examined, extracted and merged together to form short biographies for any man or woman who served in a military capacity.  Some of the sources being consulted are:

  • All of the county's cemeteries were walked and WWII markers noted
  • All of the county's newspapers in publication during the war years are being read 
  • U.S. Army Enlistment Records
  • American Legion & VFW Post records
  • Southwest Michigan Military Registry
  • Public submissions
  • Obituaries & Feature Newspaper Articles
  • Wartime Correspondence
To date, the database consists of nearly 4,000 men & women from Van Buren County with service to the Army, Navy, Marines, Air Corps, Merchant Marines, or the Coast Guard.  Also included are some members of the allied forces who served from other countries and later moved to the area.  It is expected that there will be around 7,000 listings by the time the project is complete.

In order to illustrate the civilian sacrifice for the war cause, part of the project will talk about, just to name a few...:
  • Victory Gardens
  • Rationing of Commodities
  • Civil Defense
  • Drives for the collection of materials
  • Draft Boards
  • Organizations such as WWII Mothers
An important part of the book will be it's photographs.  Whenever possible, photos of military personnel will be included with the biographies.  

The book was originally scheduled to be released this year, but the project committee agrees that in the interest of completeness, they will not rush to meet that goal.  A new release date will be announced in the near future.  The painstaking efforts that are being taken on this project will no doubt make it an authority regarding WWII era Van Buren County history, and will likely set the standard for similar publications in the future.

Military personnel for consideration must have lived in Van Buren County at some time in their life, not exclusively during wartime.  They may have been born here, buried here or have resided in the county later in life. 

If you would like to submit information, a photograph, or a name for the Van Buren County in World War II book project, contact VBRGS or visit the website

Friday, April 1, 2011

Online Hint : Google Books Offers Bigger Limited Previews to Newer Books

Many researchers know what a great tool Google Books is for online viewing & downloading older books and periodicals.  It's a bountiful resource for materials published before 1923 (the year when most publications go into the public domain). 

Lately, I've been discovering that more and more newer books are showing up in Google Books as a "Limited Preview".  I first noted it when writing the February 28 blog post about "Cass County Families", an obscure set of microfilm recently added to the library's collection.  In the hopes of learning more about this set of records, I Googled the title.  The only descriptive reference turned up in Michigan Genealogy : sources & resources, published in 2005.  Google Books had nearly half of the book available in limited preview including a paragraph about "Cass County Families".  I probably would never have found this reference without the help of Google Books.

More recently, in preparing for a mini-class for the Van Buren Regional Genealogical Society entitled "References You Should Know", I discovered two more exciting examples of the limited preview format:

New England Marriages Prior to 1700, by Clarence Torrey (467 pages shown of 1,009 total pages)

The Indian Tribes of North America, by John Swanton (273 pages shown of 729 total pages)

Granted, these limited previews are view only - no print or download features.  However, with large portions of these notable references online, we not only have access to the information but learn about the format and content of the book.  And, if you "really" need to print something, you always have the ability to locate it on your computer and select the "Print Screen" button on your keyboard.  This will allow you to paste that view into your favorite word processing program, including the image of a single page.

So, don't hesitate to search for post-1923 titles in Google Books.  You may be pleasantly surprised, as I was.