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

November 15, 2001
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Lost Family

Q: I am writing to you in hope that you might be able to help me in the search for my lost family. I don't know too much about my family background or history. I do however know that my father, Wilho Walfred Halonen, was born in Clatskanie, Oregon. His parents came from Helsinki Finland. Their names I do not know. My mother, Julie Ann Mewhinney, was born in McMinnville, Oregon. Her father's name was Maxwell Mewinney and her mother's name was Patrisha Naomi Sipp. As you can see I don't have a lot to go on. What if anything can I do from here? — Rhonda

A: The best rule in genealogy is to work from the known to the unknown. This means getting records on what you do know. Through these records you will be able to identify new family members and will learn additional information about people whose names you already know.

Another avenue that should be pursued, if it is an option for you, is to talk to living family members. Instead of asking them specific questions about when someone was born or married, ask them to recall family gatherings. As they recall events, you may be able to elicit additional information by asking questions (for example, "Hold old was Aunt June when that happened?" or "Do you remember if John brought his wife with him?"). People remember things better this way. While you may not get an exact date of birth or marriage, you will have narrowed down the years you have to search considerably.

If your parents are deceased, and you haven't already done so, you will want to request copies of their death certificates. This may help you get some additional information on your paternal grandparents. Even their names would be of help to you right now.

You will also want to see if you can get birth certificates for your parents. While the state of Oregon began the recording of birth records in 1903, there is a 100 year restriction on releasing the birth records. You might, however, be able to get records from the counties. Clatskanie is in Columbia County, and McMinnville is in Yamhill County. You can find how to request information from Oregon counties online.

I Need Evidence

Q: I just found info on the James Hereford family I've been looking for in Family Tree Maker's Genealogy Site. This is very encouraging, since some of it matches information I already had. The problem is that there was no contact information or source for the data, nor any way to find out if more is available. Is that the way Family Tree Maker wants it, or am I overlooking some way to find what resources they used? Just because Family Tree Maker "says so," doesn't make the information "Gospel." How can I find out what they based their information on? How does anyone know what's "true?" Even if we have "a preponderance of evidence," we need to know where it came from and how reliable it is. — Buddy

A: As with many of the resources available to genealogists, the data found within Genealogy.com's subscriptions varies. Some of the data is original records, digitized versions of the originals. Others are compiled by fellow researchers. And there are many records in between these two extremes.

If you found the information in the 1900 Census subscription, then you are actually looking at the original record. While the census is not always accurate, no additional errors have been introduced in the efforts to get the information online. The census, though, is a secondary source for most of the information found on it. This is true whether you are viewing it online or on microfilm.

The Genealogy Library contains a variety of digitized volumes. There are family histories that were compiled by eager researchers. Some of them may be footnoted, while others are not, just as you would find them if you pulled the book off the shelf in the library. Similar volumes are found in the International and Passenger List database as well.

While a different format, the World Family Tree is a database of compiled genealogies from fellow researchers. Like the published volumes, these compiled genealogies will vary in accuracy. Some of them have been thoroughly researched and documented. Others may have actually been thoroughly researched, but because the researcher did not include source documentation you do not know this.

The only database that you may not know where information has been garnered would be the World Family Tree. The other databases will tell you what book or other resource you are viewing, and allow you to move throughout the book or file, thus allowing you to view any footnotes or other source documentation that was present in the original volume. Even if there isn't any source documentation, at the very least you know which book has been digitized and that would be the book you would cite in your own research.

With the exception of the digitized 1900 census, all the other subscription databases are of secondary sources. Even if you were to view them in book form or view a researchers family group sheets, you would need to go out and verify the information found in them.

You are right that you should ascertain where the information came from before accepting it as valid. Usually this means using the information you have found in these databases, and others like them, and turning to the original records (vital records, probate, church records, deeds, pension records, and more).

Researchers should not rely on undocumented information submitted by other researchers, regardless of where that information is found (published book, family history Web site, or compiled database).

As for figuring out if information is true, if you want to get right down to it, there will always be a little question in our minds since we were not there when the event took place. However, we have to understand that some original records are more reliable than others, and some will always be open to question. Verify the information found in the online database, using those databases only as a clue, with primary records as your main evidence. If you do this, then you will find that you are more confident about the information you collect and share.

1910 Index Alternatives

Q: Are there any surname indices of the states that were not included in the 1910 soundex census? I am particularly interested in NY. — Jim

A: At the present time there is no online index to New York for 1910. This was not one of the 21 states that were soundexed for 1910. The majority of the states were miracoded, a computerized soundex system that listed the volume number, enumeration district and visitation number. This differs from the true soundex cards which list the volume number, enumeration district, sheet number and line number.

The 21 states indexed were Alabama, Arkansas, California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and West Virginia. These have been microfilmed and are available from most anywhere that you can get microfilmed census rolls.

For those researching in a state that was not soundexed in 1910, an alternative is to locate the family in a city directory. In a city directory, you'll learn the address of an individual. Then, using the street list in the city directory, you can determine where in the city that street was found. Many large cities are divided by wards or districts or precincts.

Armed with this information you can then turn your attention to the Enumeration Maps. Not actual maps but descriptions of the enumeration districts for each county in every state, this microfilm is available from the Family History Library through your local Family History Center. This will help you to narrow your search down to a couple enumeration districts rather than hundreds.

Of course, while an index to the 1910 New York census does not currently exist, that does not mean that one is not in the works. There are a number of companies working to index these unindexed states for 1910. If you keep watching, especially the mailing lists for the areas of importance to your research, you will soon hear if one is released.

Italian Research

Q: I've been married to an Italian for 42 years. The family never spoke of the past, so everyone is gone now even my husband. I'm trying to locate where the grandparents were married in Italy. I have the death certificate on the grandfather, but that only says he came from Italy. I have no idea of what church or anything. — Marlene

A: It sounds like your husband was either an emigrant from Italy or a first generation Italian born in the United States. Either way, it is very likely that records exist that will aid you in your research.

While vital records are a good source of information, you have discovered that when it comes to places of birth they are too broad. They list either the country or the state, and in this research you need to narrow down to the town. It sounds to me, however, that the grandfather died in the United States and that you will be able to find much of the information you need in his naturalization record and passenger list.

It may be possible to locate the family in one of the indexes to passenger lists. Many people begin Ellis Island, and this should be searched, but if you don't find him in Ellis Island, keep in mind that there are still more avenues to explore. There are many other east coast ports through which he might have entered the United States.

If you know that the family was naturalized, you may want to write for naturalization records. After 1906, these records are found at the federal level at the Immigration and Naturalization Service. You can write to them to request the appropriate documents. You might want to visit the Immigration and Naturalization Services online because they have a lot of useful information about their records here.

It is likely that either the naturalization records or the passenger list, if the family arrived in the United States after 1907, will supply you with the needed place of birth. On the passenger lists, this question was added in 1907, making the 20th century passenger lists valuable to genealogical researchers.

Once you have discovered the town, you can then write to request a copy of the record or you may want to see if the records you need have been microfilmed by the Family History Library. This would allow you to order the microfilmed records and then perhaps look for additional family members at the same time.


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 rhondagen@thegenealogist.com.

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