As a historic site, we often field questions about how to conduct family research. To help you discover your family history, we asked intern Chelsea Dowell to do some research. A student at Pratt Institute’s graduate program in historic preservation, Dowell has lots of experience researching historic buildings in NYC and beyond. Here she provides 7 steps to find out more about your family stories.
Intern Chelsea Dowell outside the Eldridge Street Synagogue
1. Record what you already know.
Write down the names of all your known relatives along with general dates and places. Work backward - start with current relatives and move back through time. Ask living relatives for additional names or information; they may be able to help you fill in blanks.
Tip: Be mindful of the time period in which you are looking. For example, be sure to look for information under both husband and wife. A crucial record of the wife’s may be catalogued under her husband’s name.
2. Create a checklist of historical records that can help you research your family history.
Do you know that your relative was in the military? Add veteran records to your list of possible resources. Was your great-grandfather involved in a court case? You may be able to find those legal recrods. Did your relative own a business? If so, they may be listed in a city directory. Other helpful historical documents may include naturalization records, land transactions, marriage certificates and business documents. Use this list of records as a checklist. By following the list and researching each type of document, you will accumulate more information and begin to develop the story of your ancestor’s life.
Tip: Set a budget for your research and think carefully about when and where you want to spend your money. Requesting certain documents may cost some money. Determine what types of records will be the most beneficial to your search and spend your money there.
3. Mine the census records using Ancestory.com and other online sources.
New York City census worker, c. 1935
Once you know the address of your ancestor, check the census records. These are organized by address and will include information like occupation, age and birth place. The census lists the head of the household (usually the oldest male in the apartment) and all other occupants of the unit. Ancestory.com is a great resource forcensus records – check your public library to see if they have a subscription. If so, you’ll be able to use the service for free on their premises. If not, it may be worth it to pay the yearly fee. Another useful census site is Heritage Quest. You should check both! Each site can yield different results.
Tip: The census records can provide valuable clues to other members of your family. They can help fill out family trees more completely or reveal more distant relatives who may have been living in the same apartment. Record the names of the people living with your known relatives and investigate them a little further. Researching in this way may uncover lost of unknown relatives.
4. Check your municipal archive.
Marriage certificates and records of birth and death can be found at the municipal archives. This may be a great way to fill in gaps in personal information – names, dates, or addresses. Additionally, these documents are important in their own right. Seeing your mother’s birth certificate can be a heartwarming experience. Ask the employees if it’s possible to print a copy for your own keeping.
Tip: Be prepared to man the microfilm machines on your own! Archive rooms can be busy and you may not receive the assistance you need.
5. Visit the National Archives at www.archives.gov.
This is an invaluable site for those doing genealogical research. Here you’ll find documents that may otherwise be difficult to find – veteran service records, land records, naturalization records and court case files. This site may be helpful in uncovering several types of documents from your checklist.
Tip: Keep in mind that records from this site often have to be ordered and received via mail. This is also a site that requires payment for many requests. Ordering land records costs $40. This may be a slower moving, long-term resource, so keep that in mine when setting any schedules for your project.
6. Use city directories and historic guidebooks.
If your ancestor was a business owner or a service provider, they may be listed in historic directories. Not unlike the yellow pages, these books were published as the ultimate guidebook for city dwellers. They included everything from piano makers to cobblers, lawyers to chimney sweeps. The listings often included the name of the proprietor, the address of the business and sometimes even the owner’s home address.
Tip: If you are searching in New York or Boston, the King’s Handbook of both cities are catalogued online at Google Books. Those may be a good place to start. If you are looking elsewhere, ask your librarian where you might find historic directories of your city.
7. Try other genealogy websites.
Your family research will most likely be an ongoing process, so there’s always more places to look! If your family is Jewish, visit http://www.jewishgen.org. This is a fantastic website for research on Jewish ancestors – you can even search by Eastern European shtetl. This website has a large community and you may connect with someone who has information about your ancestor’s village or a distant relative. If you know that your family came through New York, try the immigration records at Caste Garden. This website – www.stevemorse.org/ellis/cg.html – is a searchable database of the names of individuals who entered New York through the Castle Garden gateway. Websites like this are useful because they don’t take too much time to explore, but may yield valuable information about your relative.
Stay tuned for Chelsea’s experience researching turn-of-the-century mikvah operator Gittel Natelson!