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Rhonda's Tips: Genealogy Questions Answered
by Rhonda R. McClure

February 06, 2003
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Saving to CD-ROM

Q: I would like to put my family tree on CD so that I can put it away where it is safe. What I need to know is how to save it to a CD so that I can get it back without having to retype everything. I copied it to CD before but when I tried to view it on my son's computer, it told me it was a read only file. -- Ed

A: Saving to a CD-ROM has become more popular now that CD burners or writers come standard as part of the new computers. There are actually two different types of CD-ROM burners. The first CD Writer can only write to a special recordable compact disc one time. These are frequently what someone is referring to when they mention a writer or a burner. In the last few years another type of CD drive has become available, and today is not too expensive. This one actually uses a rewritable compact disc. This means you can reformat the disc and copy over the files previously stored on it. Many of the newer computers are coming with this type of a drive as the standard. In fact, the more recent computers are now offering a drive that burns to a DVD disc in addition to the more familiar compact disc.

When you saved the file to CD, you actually did everything right, and the CD drive did what it was supposed to do. In fact it did it too well, you might say. You see, when you saved the files to the compact disc, the file attributes were changed slightly because of where you saved the files. Since the compact disc can be written to only once, the files cannot be changed, at least as far as the CD writer was concerned. So it made the files "read only." As you tried to open the files and to make changes, you were told you couldn't because the file was now "read only." This is actually an easy thing to fix in Windows. First, copy the file onto your computer. Then, open either the My Computer or the Windows Explorer on the machine where the files have been copied to and find the file in question. If it is a Family Tree Make file, then you are looking for the file that ends in the FTW extension. Right mouse this file, and a menu will appear. At the bottom of the menu, you will see an option labeled Properties. Left click on this option and a window will open. Among other things, you will see toward the bottom of that window a section titled Attributes. You should find that the file has a check mark in the box associated with Read Only. Simply left click on that check mark so that it goes away and then click on the OK push button and the file will be usable again.

In addition to saving your family file to a CD-ROM, you may also want to save the file as a GEDCOM as well. You never know when a file may become corrupted. Saving both versions of the file gives you many options. In addition to restoring the file you also have a way to use the file with a completely different genealogy program, perhaps at a library or on your son's computer.

You mentioned that you want to do this so that you could put your family somewhere and keep it safe. Let me say that this is certainly an important thing, and one that, unfortunately, few genealogists take the time to do. I would like to suggest, though, that you do this any time you have made a major change in the file. If your computer has a rewritable CD drive, then you may want to consider backing up this way more frequently because you can reuse the CD-ROM. If not, the cost of the recordable discs has come down considerably still making it economical to make backups in this fashion. Remember, though, that like all media types there is the potential for problems, another reason to perhaps save to more than one disc. They have said that compact discs have a life of about one hundred years. While this may be so, I wouldn't want to bet my genealogy on that. Burn a new disc each time you make considerable changes to your database and you might also want to try saving the file elsewhere — such as on your Web site, you don't have to link to it and give it to everyone, but having it more than on your computer or discs in your care gives you additional protection.

Erroneous Death Certificate Information

Q: In researching my family, I obtained my grandparents' birth marriage, their child's birth and his death and my grandparents' death certificates. The person who filled out my father's New York State death certificate listed his parents as unknown, even though she knew the answers and entered the death records that way. I have the proof of his parents and would like to know how to have the "Proof" entered. I have also uncovered other "parents of" information to be wrong and I have the correct documents (i.e. census reports). Wouldn't you think the vital statistics of a State would like corrected information attached to erroneous certificates? -- Joan

A: There are only four fields on the death certificate that most states feel need to be accurate, and could result in a change of the record. Those include the name of the deceased, the date of death, the place of death, and the cause of death. Beyond this the rest of the information is not critical. As genealogists, we would love to see the certificate completely filled out and error-free since we are using the information to further the research of that person or line. Of course, while it may boggle our minds, the death certificates are recorded without concern for genealogists. Like so many of the records we use, they have been filed for an entirely different purpose, as a result the emphasis that the state may put on the certificate has to do with other things.

To the best of my knowledge the only time a certificate of any kind can be changed is when the pertinent information is wrong in some way, such as a child's name is misspelled on a birth certificate. Also most states have limitations as to when the change can take place. For instance in Florida for a fee and within so many weeks after the birth of my child I was given the opportunity to change her name. After that time, the only way to change the child's name would be to go through the regular court proceeding that anyone can do to have their name legally changed. Of course if it is just a spelling change there are some courts that will not waste the time for this because of idem sonans which basically is a legal term that says that if they sound alike though they are spelled slightly differently the person is one and the same.

In the case of the certificates you are describing, I think you will find that the states are not interested in issuing a revised certificate even though you have the identifying information that was either incorrect or unknown. It is more work than they can justify for information that they do not find critical for that particular record.

It is just this scenario, though, that illustrates the importance of getting more than just the certificates for our direct lineage. To often we narrow our research to just the direct line and as such get records on only those individuals. However, as your question shows, sometimes the information on those records may be incomplete or flat out wrong. By getting the death certificates on the siblings of the grandparents as well as the grandparents, you have other records (usually completed by different informants) which may result in information when none was known previously.

In a perfect world, genealogists would never see unknown in any field of any certificate. Since this doesn't always happen, what you can do is to share your genealogy, being mindful to protect information on any living relatives, with sources cited, so that others who come along after you will have your work to build from or to lead them down the correct path.

From Database to Microfilm

Q: On the New York City, 1600s-1800s Marriage Index I found a marriage I was looking for. At the end in comments it says "See Family History Library Catalog for films 1543791-1562446 (Manhattan)". Does this refer to LDS film records? -- Ken

A: Yes, what you refer to as the LDS film records are those records that are found in the Family History Library located in Salt Lake City which is owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The CD-ROM or subscription database from which you received the above comment has supplied you with a valuable clue. There are a number of databases both on CD and online that offer such comments, though they usually lead you to a specific volume and page number. It is possible that the entry you were looking at did this as well.

Additional identifying information is critical to your research in Manhattan. A quick search of the Family History Library Catalog, or FHLC, for the microfilm number 1562446 showed me the catalog entry for Manhattan marriage records from 1866 to 1937, with an index covering the same years. At then end of the title details page, it lists the total number of microfilm reels, and for this particular collection it is on 1,447 reels of film. That's just a few too many to order to your local Family History Center. So, if the entry in question didn't lead you to either a volume and page number, or more likely in the case of Manhattan's marriages to a year and a certificate number, your first stop will have to be with the Family History Library Catalog to find out which of the index films would be the most appropriate for your search.

The easiest way to find this information in the FHLC is to use the Film/Fiche search and put in the second of the two microfilm numbers. When I put in the first one you shared I was taken to a catalog entry for York County, Ontario, in Canada, so something isn't right about that number. The second film number though took me right to the marriages of Manhattan.

Manhattan is one of the better boroughs if you do have to use the index to find your ancestor's marriage, especially when what you know is the name of the bride. Not all of the boroughs have indexes to the brides, making research a little more difficult.

You will be able to borrow the films needed to your local Family History Center. Something like this would not need the extensions of either 90 days or indefinite loan, as it is likely that you will need just the one certificate on the roll of film. Though it is nice to know that on those films that you need to take your time with that such options exist.

Prison Records

Q: Are there prison records from the 1800's available to search? -- Maggie

A: Prisons as we know them today have been in existence for more than 200 years. The first prison was the Walnut Street Jail in Philadelphia which opened in 1790. This was soon followed by the Auburn Jail at Auburn, New York, which opened in 1816. Most of the prisons today are modeled after that of the Auburn Jail.

Prisons fall under one of four authorities: federal, state, local, and military. The difference in the authority may affect the records you have access to and where those records may be found. All prisons are listed in the Directory, Juvenile and Adult Correctional Departments, Institutions, Agencies and Paroling Authorities published by the American Correctional Association. Most public libraries will have a copy of this directory, which numbers more than 850 pages.

There are different records generated by the prisons and they may differ by prison, authority or time period. Many of the records will include some identifying information and a few will give you some information about the inmates family. Some of the records to keep a look out for include

  • Admission Books
  • Register of Prisoners
  • Biographical Registers
  • Hospital Record Books
  • Descriptive Records
  • Convict Dockets
  • Clemency Files
  • Pardon Books
  • Discharge Books

It doesn't hurt to search the Internet when looking for something like this, especially for records in the 1800s. Many genealogists are abstracting, extracting or transcribing such information to share online. You may also find that the records you are interested in are available on microfilm through the Family History Library and therefore to your local Family History Center. A search in the Family History Library Catalog for the state or county in question is a good place to start. You will want to pay attention to the subject headings after you have done the place search and chosen the appropriate place from the list that is displayed. When you view the subjects, you will be looking for a subject heading of "correctional institutions." While you may not find all of the records mentioned above, I have found that if they have any records from a prison that they usually have at least one of those registers or books that details the admission of inmates.

If you find that the records have not been microfilmed, you will want to turn to the entries in the book mentioned above to get the contact information for the prison in question. Writing or call them and find out where their records have been stored. Many times they end up at the state archives or some other repository designed to preserve the records and history of the state, county or town. They may also be able to tell you of any restrictions to access that the records may have.

Rhonda R. McClure is a professional genealogist specializing in celebrity trees and computerized genealogy. She has been involved in online genealogy for fifteen years. She is the author of the award-winning The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition. She is the author of four how-to guides on Family Tree Maker. In late 2001, she wrote The Genealogist's Computer Companion. She is a contributing editor to Biography Magazine with her "Celebrity Roots" column and a contributing writer to The History Channel Magazine. Her latest book is Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at

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