5 More U.S. Military Records For Genealogy You Might Not Know About


As promised, part two of this blog series is now here. While the good news is that the U.S. Military kept an absolute plethora of records and spent considerable time extracting and organizing information, they can be difficult to navigate. For this reason I wouldn’t recommend using it as the first place you check for your ancestor. First, examine clues from family papers, photographs, letters, newspaper articles, and other genealogical sources to reconstruct some biographical information and perhaps even create a timeline of their military service. The more specific information you have, the easier it will be to find records of interest. Part 1 focused on medical records, while this post examines specific series of service records and government publications.

Descriptive Lists 

An officer within each company of a regiment was required to keep records of soldiers while in the field. Within the field books are included muster rolls, morning reports, and casualty lists, but the series with the most biographical information about each soldier are called “descriptive lists” or "descriptive rolls." Each entry in the descriptive list will include at least their name, age, place of birth, date, place, and term of enlistment, basic physical description, and amount of pay and effects such as clothing provided to each individual. Descriptive lists can be among series in National Archives Record Group 94, Records of the Adjutant General’s Office, 1780s -1917. These have been consulted by the War Department to make compiled service records for volunteer units, but are useful to consult because they include extra remarks possibly about the soldier’s character, promotions, nature of death, and role in that company.


Fig 1. Descriptive Roll of Company K, 32nd Tennessee Volunteers, 1861-1862.[1]

U.S. Military Academy Records – There are extensive series of records at the National Archives that can help to reconstruct your ancestor’s experience attending a military academy. The U.S. Military Academy was established at West Point, New York in 1802 and the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland in 1846. Many of the 19th century records for applicants, cadets, and midshipmen have been microfilmed and are viewable on Ancestry.com. Military Academy Cadet Application Papers, 1805-1866, includes 242 rolls of microfilm arranged by year and there under by file number. Each applicant’s files include letters to the Secretary of War requesting appointment, letters of recommendation from relatives, friends, and members of congress, and letters of acceptance from the Secretary of War.

The Naval Academy records are held in Record Group 405, Records of the U.S. Naval Academy. Microfilm Series include actual academic records, such as records of conduct and registers of delinquencies, which includes their overall class performance, exam grades, and lists of demerits accrued by each cadet. Naval Academy registers include biographical information for each cadet including place and date of birth, city or town of residence at the time of enlistment, previous education, religious denomination, and the name, address, and occupation of the parent/guardian. Up until 1889, registers also include the cadet’s signatures, who was required to attest to the information given.

Proceedings of U.S. Military Court-Martials and Military Commissions – Soldiers who violated what are known historically as the “Articles of War,” would be tried under court-martial for capital offenses such as desertion, mutiny, murder or other acts of violence. A special military commission would be assembled if the offense was considered unusual. Court-martials are useful for genealogists because they are records with a helping of information. A court-martial proceeding will usually include detailed testimonies of individuals involved. They usually don’t provide a lot of biographical information about our ancestors, however you could gather additional clues for more records. Pvt. Charles Billingsley, executed by the U.S. Army for deserting his company, reports that he had several aliases during his lifetime. These names could lead to further documentation of that person. The National Archives has court-martial records in different record groups. Union General Court-Martials from the Civil War era, originally filed in Record Group 153, Records of the Judge Advocate General (Army), have been microfilmed along with Navy Court-Martials from 1799-1867. While only a select collection of proceedings have been microfilmed, Army court-martials for 1890-1890 have a case no. index on microfilm. The best way to locate a series of interest is to research entries in the National Archives’ Online Catalog.

Screen Shot 2016-08-15 at 2.48.36 PM

Fig 2. General Court Martial Proceeding for Private Charles Billingsley.[2]

Francis B. Heitman’s Historical Register and Dictionary of the United States Army – is important to know if your ancestor who served in the army was volunteer or regular army, because the War Department did not compile service records like they did for volunteer soldiers. You have to search enlistment papers and without knowing the ancestor’s unit, you will have a hard time. Therefore, this publication is a great reference to locate basic information so you can have better success searching in NARA’s collection for the army. While Heitman's register is more useful for service information regarding officers, it is still an important source for accessing history of regular army regiments and battles. Both volumes have been microfilmed by NARA as publication M1858, but are also available on Internet Archive and Google Books. Other publications compiling service data for different branches of the armed forces, exist as well.

Congressional Serial Set – Have you considered using published U.S. government documents for genealogy? While not necessarily a starting place, records of congressional hearings and government documents can provide useful bits on your ancestor. Many congressional documents pertain to information on military personnel. Among the documents in the Congressional Serial Set are lists of pensioners that will include the name of the pension claimant (widow/next-of-kin), original claimant (soldier), soldier’s rank, date of allowance, and pension certificate number. Researchers can also find registers of soldiers, casualty/hospital lists, and annual reports from the Daughters of the American Revolution, which provide list of members, gravesites for Revolutionary War Soldiers, and a description of their service. Records of the first 14 sessions of Congress are called the American State Papers but still belong to the Congressional Serial Set. Library of Congress’s website “A Century of Lawmaking” has free copies of the American State Papers and the Serial Set up until the 64th Congress. The most complete online collection of the Serial Set in on ProQuest.


[1] Image Source: National Archives Catalog.

[2] Image Source: National Archives and Records Administration, Microfilm M1523, Proceedings Of U.S. Army Courts-Martial and Military Commissions of Union Soldiers Executed By U.S. Military Authorities, 1861-1866.


Jake Fletcher is a professional genealogist, educator and blogger. Jake has been researching and writing about his ancestors since 2008 on his research blog. He currently volunteers as a research assistant at the National Archives in Waltham, Massachusetts and is Vice President of the New England Association of Professional Genealogists (NEAPG).

10 Ways to Jumpstart Your Genealogy When it Stalls

The proverbial brick wall. We all hit it at one time or another. You've searched every single document you can think of but you simply can't get past a certain time period or event for an ancestor.

Maybe you can't find Grandmother Mabel on that 1850 census but you have her in 1860 and you know she is hiding somewhere!

Perhaps Great-grandfather James is keeping his Irish origins hidden and you can't go any further unless you can figure out where in Ireland you need to look!

That's when you need to jumpstart your genealogy research. You need fresh ideas, fresh eyes and you need to be rejuvenated.

Here are 10 Ways to Jumpstart Your Genealogy:

1. Revisit and review old research
Take out all your research on that brickwall ancestor. Go over it again. Read it carefully, analyze it, see if there are clues there you might have missed the first time around. I've written about my own reviews of old research and the new clues Ive found at Why Review Old Genealogy Research? and Everyone Makes Mistakes: Why You Should Review Your Research Notes 

2. Search siblings!

Remember that siblings share common ancestors. Even half-siblings share at least one parent. You may find that your ancestor’s brother or sister’s obituary has the information you have been seeking.

3. Search a different ancestor or family line

Sometimes it's time to set Grandmother Mabel aside for a bit and work on someone else. when you are ready to go back to the puzzle of Grandmother Mabel, you may find that fresh eyes will make all the difference in the world.

4. Find a genealogy buddy who will brainstorm with you 
I always brainstorm with my husband when I have a challenging genealogy mystery. It's beneficial to have someone approach the mystery with a different outlook. Often that person comes up with something that you didn't think of.

5. Make a chronological timeline of your ancestor's life events.
This is one of the most helpful ways to organize your thoughts and see at a glance where the holes are in your research. Making a timeline for one of my husband's challenging ancestors I noted that I had his baptism record, immigration record, marriage record, births of children, death of his wife and then his death.

However I did not have a record of land he might have purchased or rented and that sent me off a hunt for those records. To my surprise there was mention of him selling his land to his wife for $1.00 then buying it back two years later. That in turn led me to think about what happened in those two years? Why had he sold the land and then bought it back? Long story short, eventually I found out he had gone to jail in that time.

6. Look for alternate or obscure records. There may be tax records, or perhaps you can find a coffin plate at http://ancestorsatrest.com/coffin_plates/ for an ancestor. Try finding a funeral card at http://ancestorsatrest.com/funeral_cards/ or a medical record.


Coffin plate in collection of Brian L. Massey, published with permission
Coffin plate in collection of Brian L. Massey, published with permission


7. Search newspapers for mention of an ancestor. I found a brief notice in a local newspaper for my great-grandfather Alexander McGinnis, stating he had been sent to jail for selling liquor without a licence!

8. Talk to family members. Someone, somewhere, might have that tidbit of information you need. My husband and I searched for years for the baptism of his great-grandfather. What we didn’t know was that he was Catholic so we were searching in the wrong church records. One day my husband’s grandmother casually mentioned that her mother used to sprinkle holy water on her during thunderstorms! Bingo! I knew we had to look in Catholic records.


ID-DNA green purple

9. Take a DNA test. DNA will match you with others who share a common ancestor. You will have to work to discover the link but many new discoveries can, and do, occur when you have your DNA tested. See DNA Genealogy - Choosing DNA Groups to Join for help if you have not yet had your DNA tested

10. Take a break
Yep that's right. Sometimes it's time to say "Enough!". Put your genealogy aside and go for a walk, or out for lunch with friends, or to a movie. Do something relaxing such as read a book, or visit a museum....  do something completely different and you may find yourself coming back to your research in a better mood and with new ideas.

For more ideas on breaking down brick walls see Ten Brick Wall Tips for Beginners and Ten Brick Wall Tips for Intermediate Researchers in the Legacy Family Tree Webinars library.


Lorine McGinnis Schulze is a Canadian genealogist who has been involved with genealogy and history for more than thirty years. In 1996 Lorine created the Olive Tree Genealogy website and its companion blog. Lorine is the author of many published genealogical and historical articles and books.

Try This Fun Genealogy Cemetery Hunt for Children

A few years ago my two eldest grandchildren ages 6 and 8 came for their annual weeklong visit. Every summer they stay with me for a week and every summer I create various genealogy games and activities for us to enjoy.

I was desperate for a new genealogy activity and decided I would take them on a hunt through a local cemetery for the grave of my great-grandmother's brother.

I figured they'd be fascinated by the hunt for half an hour tops but it would help fill the time, so I set up a Genealogy Game for them that I called The Cemetery Hunt.

I gave each grandchild a large piece of paper with the surname of the ancestor we were hunting for – Vollick.  I also added her married name of Krull so they now had two names they could look for. I explained, with a brief outline and a chart, the family relationship. They learned that Sarena Vollick, the woman we were looking for, was actually their great-great-grand-aunt, but they could think of her as their second great grandmother’s sister.

Vollick Sarena Photo

Photo of Sarena Vollick Krull

I showed them a picture of Sarena because I wanted them to understand that the stone was marking the final resting place of someone who once lived, laughed, loved, cried, experienced all the emotions we feel, and that she had been very real.

We talked about respecting the graves and gravestones of those buried in the cemetery and the manners one should use in a cemetery – not screaming and shouting, being respectful, not stepping on graves, not disturbing flowers or items left on gravestones and so on. Then I made a lunch and had them choose cookies to share in a picnic we would have in the cemetery and we set out.

I knew that with my physical issues I would not be able to keep up with them, and I was fairly certain they would each want to go in different directions in order to be the “winner”. One very important rule I stressed was that they had to be able to see me at all times. I didn't make the mistake of saying that I had to be able to see them, because of course that can be argued! ("Gee grandma I THOUGHT you could see me even if I went further down the path.....") No child can claim they could still see you if they turned a corner or were behind a tree.

We walked together for awhile, planning strategies – would they simply race around haphazardly or would they follow each row of gravestones to be sure none were missed? I let them decide how to begin but I wanted to give them the idea that planning before doing can often pay off. Off they went! They loved this game more than I could have imagined. Two hours later they were still walking around the stones, reading every single one out loud and running back to ask me questions. They were fascinated by the ages of some of those who were buried there, particularly the children. They wanted to know the stories of the military men whose stones they found, and if I didn’t know the personal story, they asked me about the war the man was in.

This gave us so many opportunities for learning such as math skills in figuring out ages of those buried by using birth and death dates on the stones, reading, history lessons about wars and epidemics, and talking about young children dying more frequently in the 1800s than now, and of course it was a wonderful bonding time.

LFT Krull Sarena Vollick
We finished the day with our picnic on a park bench in the cemetery, then more hunting where they were thrilled to eventually find Sarena Vollick’s gravestone. Then off we went home, having spent an entire afternoon in the Cemetery.

Cemetery-Hunt 640x480

The next day they asked me if we could go on another Cemetery Hunt! All in all it was a very successful Genealogy "game".

One of the questions they asked was why some of the gravestones were partially hidden by overgrown grass, and very dirty so on Day 2 I gave each of them a tiny soft brush to brush off any dirt and leaves and we returned for another half-day of bonding and genealogy fun.

Feel free to use my idea to have some fun with your children or grandchildren this summer!

Image credits: All photos are from Lorine McGinnis Schulze


Lorine McGinnis Schulze is a Canadian genealogist who has been involved with genealogy and history for more than thirty years. In 1996 Lorine created the Olive Tree Genealogy website and its companion blog. Lorine is the author of many published genealogical and historical articles and books.

Find Ancestors' Immigration in New York Almshouse Records

NY Almshouse Records


In the early 1800s port cities in the United States bore the burdens of immigration. By the time immigrants arrived from their native country, many were tired, hungry, and poor. Many newly arrived immigrants ended up in the City Almshouse or Poorhouse. This meant the citizens of their new country had to take care of them.

At first citizens of port cities such as Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and New York asked their Mayors for funds to support the poor. Eventually they asked the states, and by mid-century some states set up state agencies to deal with the issue. Eventually, beginning in the 1880's, the Federal Government nationalized the programs.

Dating back to the colonial era, New York City assumed responsibility for its citizens who were destitute, sick, homeless, or otherwise unable to care for themselves. The city maintained an almshouse (sometimes labeled a house of refuge), various hospitals, and a workhouse on Blackwell's Island (now called Roosevelt Island) to care for the poor. Some were admitted on a voluntary basis, others were sent by the local courts.

There are many women in these records. Widows or single women with no families to support them often had no recourse except to ask the city for help for themselves or their children. Abandoned children are also found in these records.

These Almshouse records are a genealogist’s treasure and often contain immigration details. Some contain basic information on each person admitted, such as the name of ship, the date of arrival in USA and the port of arrival. Others contain much more information.

House of Refuge, Randall's Island, New York 1853
House of Refuge, Randall's Island, New York 1853

Almshouse records for New York City exist from 1758 to 1953. Olive Tree Genealogy has an ongoing project to transcribe and publish all New York Almshouse Records that contain immigration information.

Project Number One

The first set of New York Almshouse admittance records is for the years 1782 to 1813.

New York Almshouse Records 1782-1813. Records contain name of ancestor, date admitted, age, where from or born, complaint [illness], discharged, died, remarks.

Project Number Two

This set of New York Almshouse Admissions covers the years 1819-1840 and includes Name, Age, Place of birth, Ship Name, Where the person is from, Ship Captain's Name, Date of Bond, Sureties, Date Discharged, Death Date, Remarks, etc. Remarks often include genealogical details of the indigent person.

For example, under date 1820 March 11 Elizabeth Kennedy age 34 is listed as having died June 14, 1820; her daughter Mary Ann died Nov. 5, 1820

Researchers can use the clues in the Almshouse records (admission date, ship captain's name, owner's name, etc) as well as census records, to narrow the time frame of arrival. Families with children born in one country, such as England, and then in New York will find it much easier to narrow the time frame of immigration.

Project Number Three

The third set of Almshouse admission records for New York city is for 1855-1858 and contains the following information: Name, age, country of origin, date of arrival, arrival port, departure port, name of ship, captain of ship, married or single, name of someone who knows them, how many times they have been on the island, and a section for remarks. The remarks field often contains the date of discharge from the Almshouse.


Left side of Almshouse admission book 1855
Left side of Almshouse admission book 1855


Right side of Almshouse admission book 1855
Right side of Almshouse admission book 1855

Other New York Almshouse Resources

There are 30 sets of Almshouse records for New York City that are available on microfilm through FamilySearch.

 For New England poor records see "Looking After the Poor: Finding Your Ancestors in New England Poverty Records" in the Legacy Family Tree Webinar library.


Lorine McGinnis Schulze is a Canadian genealogist who has been involved with genealogy and history for more than thirty years. In 1996 Lorine created the Olive Tree Genealogy website and its companion blog. Lorine is the author of many published genealogical and historical articles and books.

Image Credits:

Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library. "House Of Refuge, Randall'S Island." The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1853. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e0-d364-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

Left and Right side of pages from Admission Book copied by Lorine McGinnis Schulze from microfilm.


A Grave Mistake - Even if it's Written in Stone it Could be Wrong

A Grave Mistake - Even if it's Written in Stone it Could be Wrong

This is my great-grandfather Alexander McGinnis' tombstone in Crown Cemetery, near Morriston, Ontario. You can see that his date of birth is 1844. My uncle took me to this cemetery when I was starting my research into my father's family tree. After seeing the tombstone, I copied the information inscribed and dutifully entered 1844 into my genealogy program as Alex's date of birth.

McGinnis Alex Cemetery Tombstone
Photo by Lorine McGinnis Schulze

Then I searched census records for Alex, and the more I found, the more discrepancies were revealed. Each census recorded him with a variety of ages that of course resulted in an equal variety of estimated years of birth.

* In 1861 his age was recorded as 12, giving him a year of birth of circa 1849
* In 1871 his age was recorded as 23, giving him a year of birth of circa 1848
* In 1881 his age was recorded as 30, giving him a year of birth of circa 1851
* In 1891 his age was recorded as 41, giving him a year of birth of circa 1850
* In 1901 his age was recorded as 43, giving him a year of birth of circa 1857
* In 1911 his age was recorded as 62, and the record year of birth was 1848

I knew the questions asked about an individual’s age varied on different census years. That meant that different questions, such as what was the individual's age at last birthday, at next birthday, or right now, would result in an age range of a few years.

Alex's years of birth, except for 1901 census, were fairly consistently showing his date of birth to be between 1848 and 1851. But that was quite different from the 1844 date of birth shown on his tombstone!

I decided to find his marriage record. But that was no help either. At his marriage in September 1876 he gave his age as 22. That put his year of birth at circa 1854. Surely he knew how old he was, or so I reasoned at the time. So perhaps the 1854-year was most accurate. But what about that tombstone?

I eventually discovered that his eldest daughter Mary had paid for his stone and had it engraved. My uncle had also questioned the year of birth on Alex's tombstone but apparently Aunt Mary had always insisted that she celebrated her father's birthday every year and thus she certainly knew how old he was, therefore she knew when he was born.

Alex and his family were Roman Catholic. I knew what church the family attended but the records of that church were not available to the public nor were they microfilmed. Then came a bit of luck. A few years ago the church began offering a research service. For a reasonable fee the church secretary would look through the original church books for a record.

I sent a request for the baptism of Alex, and soon received a copy in the mail. He was baptised on 3 February 1850 but born on 3 November 1849. His tombstone, erected by his daughter, was out by five years.

McGINNIS Baptism Alex 1850
Baptism of Alexander from Church of our Lady, Guelph, Ontario

So why the discrepancies? Why did Alex not give his correct age when he married in 1876? He was actually 27 years old that year, so why did he say he was 22? The census years were fairly close to his correct year of birth so obviously he knew his age. It is not uncommon to find that an ancestor might not his or her exact age but Alex appeared to know his (except for the 1901 census)

Then I realized that the marriage registrations are copies of what was sent in by the minister. So the original entry may indeed have read "27" but the "7" could have been misread as a "2" resulting in the incorrect age of 22 for Alex.

So everything can be explained except for the 1901 census record and the tombstone inscription. But can we explain the census record? Yes. We do not know who gave the information to the census taker. In 1901 Alex lived with his sister, her husband and daughter, and his mother who was in her late 70s. Depending who the census taker spoke to, the age given for Alex could be quite incorrect.

That brings us back to the original culprit - that darned tombstone. Aunt Mary was 60 when her father Alex died. She thought he was 91. In reality he was 87. Was she confused? Had she never known her father's real age? Or did Alex tell his family his wrong age as he reached his 80s?

My mother did that. She turned 92 in 2006, but for two years prior to that birthday she had been adding a year or two on to her real age. In July 2006 she told everyone at a family reunion that she was 93 and would be 94 on her birthday in September. So she added two years to her real age. She was as sharp as a tack so I still have no idea why she fibbed to make herself older. I'm the only one of my siblings who seems to know her actual age, my brothers and sister believe whatever she tells them. If they were to have a tombstone inscribed for her, it's almost guaranteed it would have the wrong year of birth.

And thus we have the moral of my story of a Grave Mistake - that even if it's written in stone it could be wrong.

If you'd like to learn more about cemetery records, watch any of the four classes on the topic in the Legacy library.


Lorine McGinnis Schulze is a Canadian genealogist who has been involved with genealogy and history for more than thirty years. In 1996 Lorine created the Olive Tree Genealogy website and its companion blog. Lorine is the author of many published genealogical and historical articles and books.




Riding Grandfather's Paper Express: Genealogical Research in U.S. Railroad Records

Riding Granfather's Paper Express

How did your ancestors experience the effects of railroads in America? The introduction of steam locomotives into American commerce and daily life in the 19th century changed the way people would experience their nation and its landscape. For many, the advent of steam locomotives and completion of major projects like the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869 represented the American idea of manifest destiny. Completing a transportation system that spanned from one coast to another signified that America fully commanded its land, able to utilize it as much as was desired for the nation’s prosperity.

However, achieving manifest destiny and propelling commerce into the future was rarely accomplished without the cost of human life. The construction of the Hoosac Tunnel in Berkshire County, Massachusetts took 195 lives and injured countless more from accidents and explosions.[1] Even riding the railroads was risky business. On Sep 8, 1894, an accident in the Hoosac Tunnel claimed the lives of William Terpinning of Syracuse, New York and George Minnick of Fitchburg, Massachusetts when a miscommunication by the track signalman resulted in a head-on collision between two trains.[2]

Finding records of railroad employees and particular incidents can be difficult. Researchers need to know the company for which they worked, the dates of service, and some basic genealogical information, in order to be certain of whether records survive. Railroads were not heavily regulated until the 20th century and the transient nature of workers means that early records do not often survive. With that said, there are many resources available for finding more information about railroad personnel and this article intends to break these down for the purpose of the genealogist.

Railroad worker. Image Source: Library of Congress.
Image Source: Library of Congress


Railroad Records in the National Archives

Records related to railroad personnel are located throughout several record groups in the National Archives. Those that are most valuable to the genealogist would have to be the pension files for retired railroad workers. The first federal railroad retirement system was created in the 1930s to repair the defects of previous pension programs put in place by the private sector. At first declared unconstitutional, Congress created an agreeable railroad retirement system under the Railroad Retirement and Carriers’ Taxing Act of 1937. This congressional act put the system under control of the Railroad Retirement Board and allowed employees to retire with benefits after the age of 65 or between 60-64 if they had served at least 30 years. Later amendments in 1946 and 1951 allowed for survivor benefits and annuities for the spouses.[3]

These files can vary greatly in size, from 20 to 200 pages, but the genealogical information is substantial. A researcher could find the following information:

  • Applicant’s full name, date and place of birth, names of parents, current address
  • Record of applicant’s prior services
  • Names of beneficiaries, usually spouses or children, and their relationship to the employee
  • Forms which provide the documentation the worker submitted in support of a claim, i.e. vital records, baptism certificates, statement of insurance policies, etc. Copies of the actual records were only made if completed by the person filing the claim file
  • For claim files in which the spouse completed an application for annuities, the spouse provided their name, date and place of birth, parents names, previous marriages and names and birth dates of minors living with them at the time of the application
  • If the worker was seeking annuities for disability, they were required to complete a physical examination and have the physician submit a report that included a detailed medical profile

These claim files equal genealogy gold. How does a researcher check to see if a claim file exists for a particular individual? Claim files held by the Railroad Retirement Board only exist from 1937 to the present day, so the individual in question must have retired or deceased after 1 Jan 1937. Fortunately, there is now an online index for these records through the Midwest Genealogy Center. The index will provide researchers with the surname and initial of the forename, the date of death, claim number, and which repository holds custody of the file. Most of the claim files have been transferred from the Railroad Retirement Board to the National Archives at Atlanta. For a firsthand perspective, I recommend checking out Debbie Mieszala’s article "All Aboard! Railroad Retirement Board Records" on the Advancing Genealogist blog which describes her experience in using a claim file for genealogical research.

Other sources of genealogical information can be gleaned from NARA Record Group (RG) 134, Records of the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC). The ICC was created in 1887 to more effectively regulate the railroads and investigate safety concerns. RG 134 actually contains some information on non-railroad personnel through the land acquisition forms, 1914-1939, valuation maps, and land field notes of ICC appraisers relating to the current value of real estate adjacent to railroad rights-of-way, 1915-28. These sources provide the names of people who owned parcels of land adjacent or on the railroad right-of-way at the time of the company’s acquisition.

RG 134 also contains railroad accident investigation reports, but only starting in 1911, because the Federal Government was not involved in railroad accidents until Congress passed the Accident Reports Act on 6 May 1910. An individual who endangered themselves to save lives in a railroad accident may have a Medal of Honor case file in RG 134. These run from 1905 to 1955. In 1967, the function of railroad accident investigations was transferred to the Office of Safety, Federal Railroad Administration (Record Group 399). Reproductions of these investigative reports up to 1994 can be viewed online through the Department of Transportation (DOT) website, in which they are organized by year and then by the railroad company which owned the train involved in the accident. For incidents prior to 1911, researchers should try newspapers or court records to find out more information about a particular incident, as many filed claims against the railroad companies and employees were tried for reckless endangerment, manslaughter, or homicide.[4]

A lot of railroad history and information involving particular incidents remains scattered throughout Records of the District Courts (Record Group 21). District Court proceedings are held by the regional branches of the National Archives and those pertaining to railroads consist of civil cases involving racial discrimination, working conditions, retirement benefits, claims for damages to property, injuries and deaths resulting from railroad incidents.[5] Below is the indictment of John L. Williams, in which Williams was found guilty for providing false information in his claim for retirement benefits.

Record Group 21, U.S. v. John L. Williams Jr., Eastern Dist. of Louisiana, Criminal Case No. 29445. Image Source: National Archives and Records Administration
Record Group 21, U.S. v. John L. Williams Jr., Eastern Dist. of Louisiana, Criminal Case No. 29445. Image Source: National Archives and Records Administration


Only a few employee rosters survive in the National Archives. The only ones are rosters of railway postal clerks, 1855-97, in the Records of the Post Office Department (Record Group 28) and lists of employees of U.S Military Railroads in Alexandria, Virginia, during the Civil War, in the Records of the Office of the Quartermaster General (Record Group 92).[6]

Company Records

Beyond the National Archives, records of railroad employees remain in the custody of dozens of local archives. The personnel listings are incomplete at best. I highly recommend downloading Jim Sponholz’s guide entitled "Locations of Railroad Genealogical Materials." This guide explains what employee records survive for each company, the dates they span and which repository has custody of these records or whether an online index exists.

Railroad Magazines

Many companies and even employees published magazines that chronicle a great deal of history about the railroads in the United States. They often include lists of current employees, detailed life histories of retiring employees, and information on the day-to-day life on the railroad. Jim Sponholz’s Rootsweb page is the authoritative source on the whereabouts of these magazines, as they are once again very scattered. Some publications are digitized, like the Journal of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, available on Google Books, and the Frisco Railroad magazine, through the Springfield-Greene County Library. Better yet, some institutions have even put together name indexes for their company magazines, such as the Boston and Maine Railroad Historical Society.

The railroads touched the lives of their ancestors in many ways, sometimes very tragically. Is there a story involving trains or railroad employees in your family tree? Depending on the time and place in which your ancestor was involved with the railroads, you may very well be riding a long way on the paper express to genealogy gold.


Jake Fletcher is a professional genealogist, educator and blogger. Jake has been researching and writing about his ancestors since 2008 on his research blog. He currently volunteers as a research assistant at the National Archives in Waltham, Massachusetts and is Vice President of the New England Association of Professional Genealogists (NEAPG).


[1] Charles Cahoon, comp. “Hoosac Tunnel Accident Victims,” Boston & Maine Railroad Historical Society (http://www.bmrrhs.org/on-lines-archives/: accessed 14 May 2016).

[2] “Two Men Killed and Others Injured in Hoosac Tunnel,” Vermont Phoenix, 14 Sep 1894, p.7, col.1, image copy, Library of Congress (http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn98060050/1894-09-14/ed-1/seq-7: accessed 14 May 2016), Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers.

[3] “Railroad Retirement Handbook – Chapter 1: Development of the Railroad Retirement System.” U.S. Railroad Retirement Board (https://www.rrb.gov/general/handbook/chapter1.asp#: accessed 14 May 2016).

[4] A detailed explanation of RG 134 is on pages 29-42. See David A. Pfeiffer, Comp. Records Relating to North American Railroads, Reference Information Paper 91, (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, Revised 2004).

[5] Pfeiffer, Records Relating to North American Railroads, 114.

[6] Pfeiffer, Records Relating to North American Railroads, 12.


My first look at FindMyPast's new 100 million marriage records

FindMyPast has been known as the leader for genealogy in the British Isles, but with their recent announcement of their addition of 100 million United States marriage records, they are beginning to attract attention from this side of the pond as well - including mine. In February they published the first 33 million of these records, and just this week they announced the availability of the next 10 million records.

After my recent successful experience with uploading part of my tree to FindMyPast for the first time (see it again in the after-webinar party here), I thought I would start over and this time upload my entire tree. I was hopeful that the same green hints that appeared for my small tree would begin to appear for the U.S. side of my tree, thus alerting me to those ancestors it found in the new marriage record collection. The entire uploading process took a little less than an hour (not bad for having 23,540 individuals in my tree), yet a couple of days later the hints have not yet started to appear. Perhaps the reason for the delay was that my tree was so large. I'll keep checking back.

In the meantime, I am anxious to begin searching the new marriage records, of which sixty percent have never before been published anywhere online. My first step was to query my Legacy family file to see which married couples had incomplete information about their date or place of marriage. Astonishingly, there were 8,301 individuals who had no place of marriage recorded. Many of them had partial or complete dates, but no marriage place. Blank! Wow, could I ever use this new marriage collection. Here's how I created the list in Legacy.

1) At Search > Find I filled in the following information:


Notice that I left the "What to look for" field blank. This would give me a list of all individuals who were married, but didn't have a marriage place recorded.

2) Click on the Create List button and the Search List will appear.


Notice here that Clayton Robert McCall's marriage information is completely blank. I simply haven't previously found the record. This list can then be printed to paper or to PDF by clicking on the Print button. And for you advanced Legacy users, I could also TAG everyone in this list so I can quickly refer back to them again.

I thought I'd give the new marriage collection a try by searching for Clayton and Ruth's marriage record. His parents were from Tennessee but moved first to Hancock County, Illinois and then to Yamhill County, Oregon in the 1860s. So these were three potential places they could have married.

Next, at FindMyPast.com, under the Search menu, I clicked on the "A-Z of records sets" link.


Then I typed "United States" into the Search box which narrowed down the list of collections, and clicked on the "United States Marriages" link.


Knowing that Clayton McCall was a fairly uncommon name, I entered only his name and clicked the search button.


Of the 493 results, numbers 4-6 have a Clayton R. McCall married to a Ruth E. in Yamhill County, Oregon in 1915. Even Clayton's birth year as shown in the index matched my records. Getting exciting! But then, I get excited for ANY new record I find, have you ever noticed that?


The first of the three records was a digitized image of the county's marriage index:


The next gave their marriage date and ages:


And the last entry was the same as the second, but it appeared to be the index sorted by the bride.


So...I was hoping for a copy of the actual marriage record (makes me sound a little spoiled, eh?) but at least now I have the date, volume, and page number so I can request a copy of the original. I'll go add a new To Do item in Legacy for this task before I forget:


One down, 8,299 to go. It looks like my relationship with FindMyPast is going to get a lot closer in these next few months. And that sleep I was hoping for - well, that can wait.

Break Down Those Brick Walls

How many times have you been stuck on an ancestor, unable to get back any further in your search? You’ve searched for years for parents or an exact birth location without success. I’m pretty sure we’ve all reached that place, that formidable brick wall, many times in our genealogy research.

Let's assume you have not been able to find your great-great grandmother's maiden name. You know her first name is Mary but there is no notation of her former surname on the records you’ve found.

You’ve done all the right things. You’ve looked for her son Henry, your great-grandfather in all the usual record sources - in marriage records, birth records and obituaries. You searched for the family in census records. You searched church records, vital registrations, and newspapers for obituaries. You’ve concentrated on great-grandfather Henry and great-great grandmother Mary because those are your direct ancestors.

Great-grandpa Henry’s marriage record showed his mother with her married name. There was no help there. You found his death registration and viewed it in anticipation. But sadly the informant (great-great grandpa's second wife) didn't know her mother-in-law’s maiden name.

Henry’s obituary was no help. Neither was his mother Mary’s. Obituaries for both great-grandpa and his mother were interesting but there was no mention of her maiden name or her parents. What to do now?

It’s time to start researching Henry’s siblings!

Why search siblings? You're only interested in YOUR ancestor, right? WRONG!

Remember that your ancestor and his siblings shared the same parents, and those parents are your next generation back. That’s right – the generation you’re looking for. Somewhere in a sibling record may very well be Great-grandmother Mary’s maiden name, the names of her parents, and a great deal more. You will never know until you start looking.

Look for great great grandpa's youngest sister's marriage record. Look for his brothers' death records. Research each sibling in turn as if they were your direct ancestors, and follow the standard genealogical research methods. Find every document you can on each sibling.

Researching and tracking siblings, finding their marriages, children, deaths and all other details about their lives can provide you with those long-sought answers to your brickwall.

A bonus is that you will have a much better idea of great-grandpa Henry’s family and their lives. He will be more alive for you and you will have an intimate sense of him as a real person not just a name and a few dates on your Pedigree Chart. You may be quite surprised at the interesting facts you’ll find on his siblings. When I searched my great-grandfather Stephen Peer’s family, I discovered that his brother Harmen Peer was the first base jumper in North America.  Further research led me to my great-grandfather’s cousin Stephen Peer who was a tightrope walker and who died walking his tightrope over Niagara Falls.  What great stories to add to story-telling time with my grandchildren!

Here’s an example of another benefit to researching an entire family. After more than 30 years of researching my Peer family, I had gathered so much information on the five sons of the immigrant ancestor that I compiled it all into six volumes of books on the Peer family in North America which other descendants can purchase and which my children and grandchildren are being given this Christmas.  So my research is being shared and interested descendants may find some answers to their own personal brickwalls!

So remember – search those siblings. Don’t overlook turning any stone available to you in your hunt for your own ancestor.

There are four Brick Wall classes in the Legacy Family Tree Webinar Library. Start learning today!


Lorine McGinnis Schulze is a Canadian genealogist who has been involved with genealogy and history for more than thirty years. In 1996 Lorine created the Olive Tree Genealogy website and its companion blog. Lorine is the author of many published genealogical and historical articles and books.

Was Great Grandpa's Name Changed at Ellis Island?


"My great-grandpa's name was changed at Ellis Island!" How often have we genealogists heard this statement? Sadly, this is a commonly held misconception. There is not one shred of evidence to support the claim that officials changed the names of immigrants arriving at Ellis Island.

Officials not only did not have the time to start assigning new names to incoming passengers they didn't have the authority to do so. 

Check how many ships were arriving daily and how many passengers on average were on each one, then think about the lineups of immigrants waiting to be cleared. Yes, it’s about the math, it’s about the sheer numbers of immigrants arriving in any one day, month or year. There was no time for officials to do more than process each immigrant as quickly as possible.

Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division
Ellis Island Arrivals. Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Sometimes an arriving immigrant used an incorrect name such as the surname of a stepfather rather than the biological father, or a name the family had adopted for other reasons. It is also important to remember that names of passengers were taken at the port of departure. These were entered on the ship’s manifest (which we commonly refer to as a passenger list). How the name was entered when the immigrant left their country is how the name was received at the incoming arrival port.

Sometimes an immigrant deliberately falsified their name and arrived under the name of someone else. Often these falsified arrival names were changed by the immigrants themselves later in life, such as when they applied for naturalization papers, or some form of pension, or they wanted to vote in elections.

If an immigrant's new name did not match that shown on their official immigration record such as a ship's passenger list, he or she might face difficulties voting, in legal proceedings, or naturalization.

One of the most common reason that an ancestor's name on the manifest does not match the surname your father and grandfather have used, is that it was a name unfamiliar to English speaking clerks, and was entered phonetically in other documents, such as census records. For example the surname Przybyszewskl is not only challenging for North Americans to spell, but also to pronounce. It can easily be incorrectly recorded and eventually may become the standard and new name.

Sometimes an immigrant chose to "Americanize" their surname themselves and simply began using a new name a year or so after settling in America. Americanizing a surname usually meant making it more familiar to English speakers and spellers. Many of these Americanized names were simply shortened from their original version, for example Kohnovalsky could become Cohn.

First names can also be inadvertently or intentionally changed by the immigrant himself or by a clerk recording the name phonetically. My husband’s Belgium born great grandfather’s name was Archie. Or so we thought. But baptism records in Belgium proved it was Achilles, which is pronounced Aw-shee. That sounds like Archie and so he became Archie to his friends in his new land of Canada.

Names in other countries and non-English languages are often changed to their English equivalent. My sister’s father-in-law was baptised as Waclaw in Poland. He is found under that name on his 1927 passenger list. But one year later he was recorded under the English equivalent of Walter as he crossed the border from America to Canada.

Another reason why an immigrant’s name can be different than his birth name is when a nickname was the name given by the immigrant himself. My grandmother’s original legal name was Ruth, but her family called her Dolly. She gave that name on official records but it was her decision, and was not arbitrarily assigned to her by immigration officials. My husband’s grandfather was Leon Thomas but he was always called Charlie and was the name he used on all official documents.

Below are some sample letters representing typical cases of immigrants who made their own decisions to change their surnames.

How Diamond became Cohen
How Kohnovalsky became Cohn
How Bahash became Amber
How Shukowsky became Zakotsky
How Asszony became Miazaroz
 An excellent article on this topic called "American Names / Declaring Independence" can be found at Immigrant Name Changes



Lorine McGinnis Schulze is a Canadian genealogist who has been involved with genealogy and history for more than thirty years. In 1996 Lorine created the Olive Tree Genealogy website and its companion blog. Lorine is the author of many published genealogical and historical articles and books.

Adding Historical Context to Your Ancestor's Life

Nothing hits me in the gut more than knowing that a direct ancestor of mine spearheaded an Indian massacre. In January 1863, Colonel Patrick E. Connor and his regiment wreaked havoc at Bear Creek in southeastern Idaho, resulting in hundreds of casualties for the Shoshoni Indian Tribe and their families. Being descended from a decorated war hero, to whom I owe my middle name, does not generate the feelings of pride or excitement it once did. However, the relationship of Americans and indigenous tribes was complex to say the least. Without disregarding the atrocities committed by General Connor, Americans settling out west were victims of raids and brutality by the Western tribes as well. This article is not meant to debate the ethics of one side against the other, but rather to briefly demonstrate how research, thus adding historical context, gives us a fuller understanding of our ancestor’s lives and their actions.

Whether we're dealing with the more light-hearted fare of day-to-day life or events that taint our family history, adding historical context is an important process to bring us closer to our ancestors. The world of genealogy is catching on to this with great interest; more and more researchers are looking for ways to add “meat on the bones” and to bring to light the time-period of their ancestors and what their experiences were like. When we research the history around our ancestors, they become more than names on a branch, but people with a story to tell, that can captivate you, your family, and future generations. My experience in genealogy has proven repeatedly, that our history textbooks from grade school overlooked the amazing history retold through the stories of everyday people.

Image source: Library of Congress

We often find clues in our sources that probe us to ask, “Why did they do that?” or “Why did this happen to them?” At our disposal are voluminous resources that we can use to answer, or at least come closer to answering, these questions.


Newspapers are a great primary source for investigating historical events and they help to demonstrate the character of a particular community. Not only do they provide primary accounts of important moments in our ancestors’ lives, but they also capture the opinions and sentiments your ancestor may have held towards particular social issues. The first place I’d look for links to online newspapers databases is FamilySearch Wiki’s article, "Digital Historical Newspapers” or Cyndi’s List. Also, visit Kenneth Mark's Ancestor Hunt website which provides tremendous resources for newspaper research. There are also over 15 "always free" classes on newspaper research by Tom Kemp inn the Legacy Family Tree Webinars library.


A lot of great study has been devoted to understanding life at the workplace. Try researching the history of a specific job like coal miner or a particular company, i.e. the Boston & Maine Railroad Company, to find collections and sources that provide insight into the day-to-day life of your ancestor at work.


If your ancestor was a veteran, there are abundant websites and records documenting the activities of your ancestor’s company or regiment to help better understand their experience on the battlefield. I would start by searching your ancestor’s regiment or company because there is a very high chance somebody created a webpage on it, or you can go deeper using records of the National Archives. The document below shows Colonel Connor’s own account of the Massacre at Bear Creek, extracted from a large series of reports and correspondence published as The War of the Rebellion.




29 Jan 1863 – Engagement on the Bear River, Utah Ter. [1]   
29 Jan 1863 – Engagement on the Bear River, Utah Ter. [1]



Accessing the articles written by scholars and historians is a great way to add historical context. Less focused on genealogical research, scholarly articles can provide fuller understanding on a variety of historical subjects, i.e. the witchcraft hysteria in New England or social conditions of Irish-Americans in urban communities. These academics have gone to great lengths to pull together a variety of primary and secondary sources to give a more balanced view of history. Pertinent databases include JSTOR, Google Scholar, and Academic Search Complete by EBSCOhost. Some are free, while others require subscription access. Check your local library or university to inquire about what research databases are available within their network.


Even if family treasures like diaries and letters do not exist in your family, consider reading those of other families that relate to your research. The farther back in time we are researching, the more important these primary sources become in determining what might have been our ancestor’s thoughts, feelings, and aspirations in their day to day lives. Many have been published and edited with commentary, like The Prendergast Letters: Correspondence from Famine-Era Ireland or One Colonial Women’s World: The Life and Writings of Mehetabel Chandler Coit, while others still lie in the stacks of archives. To track down some of these, try the National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections or ArchiveGrid by WorldCat. These are excellent catalogs to begin archival research.


Add some fun to your family history journey and enjoy a visit to a museum! Particularly in ones that offer living history settings, like Plimoth Plantation, the past surely does come alive. Museum guides, re-enactors, and collections on display provide a window into life as it once was. Something about experiencing history first hand cannot be recreated in any type of source or record. As a bonus, visiting a museum is a great field trip for the whole family to take, so everyone can better understand and appreciate the lives of our ancestors, but most importantly, all of the great work you as genealogists do in preserving the legacy!

Hear are a few examples of digital libraries and archives that could help with providing historical context, along with resources that provide links to some of these repositories.

"American Memory.Library of Congress.

Colonial North American Project.Harvard University Library.

Documenting the American South.University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill.

Digital Collections.Library of Congress.

Nancy E. Loe. “States on Sunday Archives.” Sassy Jane Genealogy. A growing collection of free digital archives by State.

Primary Source Sets.” Digital Public Library of America.

Staff Writers. “250 Plus Killer Digital Libraries and Archives.Open Education Database (oedb.org), posted 25 Mar 2013.


[1] United States. War Dept; et.al. The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. (Washington, D.C.: Govt. Printing Office, 1900), 187.


Jake Fletcher is a genealogist and blogger. Jake has been researching and writing about genealogy since 2008 on his research blog Travelogues of a Genealogist. He currently volunteers as a research assistant at the National Archives in Waltham, Massachusetts and is Vice President of the New England Association of Professional Genealogists (NEAPG).