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

August 03, 2000
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Disappearing Ancestor

Q: I am trying to research the Mason tree for a friend. Herman Mason was in W.W.II but I can find no social security number or war records. Where do I search? He was born 7/2/1916 and died 1979. -- Debbie

A: We like to think that the Social Security Death Index is a complete index to everyone who has passed away in the United States. However, there are a number of reasons why an individual may not appear in the Social Security Death Index. There are certain occupations, such as railroad worker and teacher that had their own pension set up and therefore they do not show up in the index.

You know when he was born and the year he died. Your friend may need to come up with at least a state where he or she suspects that he died. It may be that the death index for that state is available online, helping you to narrow that down so that you can request a copy of the death certificate. The death certificate may supply you with the needed information for the names of Herman's parents.

You do not indicate what you have tried to do in regard to the war records. Unlike World War I where we have the index to draft cards, you need to have a great deal of knowledge about an individual to request copies of his military records. Also, since his records would have been housed in NARA's National Personnel Record Center (NPRC) in St. Louis, it is possible they were destroyed by fire.

On 12 Jul 1973 the NPRC had a major fire that destroyed approximately 16-18 million military personnel files. For those who were discharged from 1 Nov. 1912 to 1 Jan 1960 in the Army, there was approximately 80 percent destruction.

However, you may discover that Herman Mason registered his discharge when he got home. Many of the soldiers and sailors who were honorably discharged sometimes recorded their discharge at the county courthouse. These are often found intermingled in the deed records. It is possible you can locate the discharge through the county courthouse.

Finally if your hope is to locate the parents of Herman Mason, then you may want to turn your attention to when and where he was born. The 1920 census is indexed. You could search the state of birth looking in the Mason family cards for a family with a son named Herman who was approximately 4 years old. The index would lead you to the actual census records, which would give you additional information on the parents.

Born in Norway

Q: I am wondering how I can get my grandfather's birth certificate; his name is Antone Strand, born in Bergian, Norway? Any help would be appreciated. -- Linda

A: Norway's vital records were begun in the 1600s. From this stand point you are fortunate, although since you are looking for your grandfather's birth certificate you would have had a much better chance than some other people researching in other countries.

Some of the early registers may be found at:

Norwegian Emigration Center
Bergjelandsgate 30
N-4012 Stavanger, Norway

However, your best access to the records is probably at the town level. The Lutheran pastor holds the vital records for each town. So, it is necessary to contact them directly.

You can easily address the letter to:

Lutheran Church
Bergian, Norway

To facilitate the processing of the mail you may want to see if you can get the official postal code for Bergian. This would be placed in front of the town.

Immigrant Research

Q: This is my first time looking up my grandparents. My father just passed away a month ago. From this gathering of the clan, many stories started popping up. My Mom started talking about my grandparents coming through Ellis Island. So now I have this new computer, and a desire to start looking up my family on both sides. Starting with my Mom's parents, my grandmother came in on the S.S. Modonna from Horta Fayel, May 1, 1912. My grandfather came from Greece, but we do not know what the name of the ship was. My question is how do I get started. -- Jan

A: The first thing to do is to locate your grandparents in the 1920 census. This will help you in determining the year that your grandfather immigrated. You will also have an idea of your grandfather's age, thus an estimation as to when he was born. This information will be important when you are working with the index to the passenger lists.

Provided that your grandfather immigrated after 1896, then you will have the advantage of an index that goes through 1945. The cards vary in format and information supplied. However, you will find the name of the individual, their age, and either date of arrival and name of ship or volume number and name of ship.

Census and passenger lists records can be accessed through your local Family History Center. These branches of the Family History Library of Salt Lake City can be found in local Latter-day Saint (Mormon) chapels. You can usually find their address and phone number in the telephone book.

The passenger lists and indexes for Ellis Island are cataloged under New York, New York, New York in the Family History Library Catalog. You will find many passenger lists and indexes under New York, but you are looking for those that pertain to the index from 1897 to 1945 and the accompanying passenger lists. This is a large listing in the catalog.

Pagan Research

Q: I have always had an avid interest and curiosity in "the Old Ways" since elementary school, where I first presented my interest in a report of the Salem Witch Trials. Later, when I was about 14 years old, I got he courage to actually research Paganism on the computer, then later buy an actual book on the subject. Today, I am a confirmed Pagan, and (getting to the point, lol) I wish I knew if I have any Pagan ancestors. Now I am not sure if genealogy involves the religious paths of one's ancestors, or if it's based solely upon origins of their nationalities and name. -- Chris

A: Genealogical research covers every aspect of the individual's life. This research is often necessary in the pursuit of locating the additional names and generations that most genealogists are looking for.

Among other records, genealogists generally do turn to church records. They do this for a variety of reasons, including trying to locate births, baptisms, and names of parents. Of course it is the more established religions that have records that are available.

As your own research has revealed certain practices, among them that of Wiccan belief and other pagan beliefs are not encouraged in certain localities and time periods. So unless you discover an ancestor who was accused of something, it may be difficult to determine if they were of Pagan religions.

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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