A Year in Review: New Records and Features in MyHeritage - free webinar by Daniel Horowitz now online
Grandma's Obituary Box: The Use of Obituaries in Genealogical Research - free webinar by Pam Eagleson, CG, now online for limited time

What Uncommon Sources Have You Used?


It's probably not a surprise to anyone that I’m a huge fan of uncommon sources (my Legacy webinar on 25 Uncommon Sources for Your Genealogy was recently released) and I’m always on the lookout for them. Why? Because they can provide you the genealogical information you’re looking for and so much more. They are especially important as substitutes for records that no longer exist.

Where did my love of uncommon sources start? My background is researching women's lives and so records that document their lives have always been a favorite.  Friendship quilts and community cookbooks are particular favorites of mine. I also love other sources that provide surprising information like Farm Directories that I have found that include directory information, and in some cases,  the wife's maiden name.  

As a beginning genealogist I devoured the book Hidden Sources (2000) by Laura Szucs Pfeiffer. This guidebook of  little used sources, some that are more common in today’s world of digitized records, was one I studied chapter-by-chapter learning more about exciting sounding records such as Body Transit Records, Bird’s Eye View Maps, Midwife Records, and the US Serial Set. She taught me that that there were other records genealogists needed to use aside from the more common genealogical sources of the US Federal Census and vital records. Reading about these records and then looking for examples is what hooked me into wanting to learn more about what could possibly exist.

The idea about using unusual sources really is that we need to think more in terms of what is available for a time and place and not just what are “genealogy sources.” It’s sort of like going to a local bookstore. You could look at the “genealogy” section but you could also find relevant books in the history, sociology, and even cookbook sections.

So where do you find unusual sources?

  • It’s probably no surprise that I’m going to say that you should READ! I read a lot of magazines, online articles and non-fiction books. I always turn to the bibliography and footnotes and see what they have that might be relevant to my own research or for me to know to suggest to others.
  • Go through the FamilySearch Catalog. Choose the State or country you’re researching and go through the various subjects. What do you see that you’re not familiar with? If you narrow your search by Online (look to the right of your results list) you can go through the records you find and to become more familiar. Once you conduct that search, do a second search for the county or similar region and go through those subjects.
  • Listen to more webinars! Ok, you know I had to say this, right? But I am serious. I’m a huge believer in continuing education and Legacy’s over 1000 webinars is the perfect example of how you can learn more. Choose a topic or a favorite presenter and listen. If you’re a subscriber, download the handouts and take note of any source you’re not familiar with.
  • Decide on an uncommon source goal. Think of a source you’re not familiar with and make it a goal to learn more about it this coming year. I’ve done that in the past like the year I decided to study all of the women’s repatriation records at the National Archives at Riverside. Studying various records whether it’s at home through a website or in person is the way for you to learn more about what is available.

This year I’m taking a closer look at voting records (2020 is the anniversary of the 19th amendment here in the United States), runaway wife newspaper ads, and divorce records. My hope is to learn more about these records, why they exist and what they can tell us about our ancestors.

Now it’s your turn. I want to learn from you. What is an uncommon source that you love? What’s something you’ve used in your family history but it seems like few people know about it. What’s a source that you are going to spend time learning more about? Tell me about that source in the comments below.


Gena Philibert-Ortega is an author, instructor, and researcher. She blogs at Gena's Genealogy and Food.Family.Ephemera. You can find her presentations on the Legacy Family Tree Webinars website.


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

When I began genealogy back in the early 1980s, I was taught to save papers and possibly duplicates and I did. As beginner researchers, we focus on vital statistics then extend to other information and sources.
Today, I have many boxes and file cabinets of paper. I have already gone through one box and made 300% certain all the information (and some new information for me) are on my computer...then I toss the paper. I am working on my second box and still have lots of boxes/files to go through.

A church bulletin gave me a clue about a book that contained a biography of my grandfather.

I have always paid attention to the bibliography and footnotes for possible sources, not only for genealogy. I also did this in high school and college many years ago. Facebook groups and message boards are a great resource for sources.

Quite by chance, I became a genealogist at the age of 27 over 53 years ago.

Very early on I wrote to the Lincolnshire Archives in Lincoln, Lincolnshire, England. That produced a reply from the senior archivist with a list of wills they held for people with my surname, together with instructions on how to teach myself to read old wills. How lucky I was. I remember Mrs. Joan Varley with gratitude.

The wills pointed me in the direction of southern Lincolnshire and a handfull of parishes around the parish of Pinchbeck. After transcribing all the Edgoose wills I decided to expand my search and I began ordering wills of their friends and neighbours. I started with the year 1750, working backwards. I now have every will from 1600-1750, and a good proportion of those from 1500-1599, every will indexed by name.

They are an amazing resource for finding relationships which aren't obvious from a study of the surviving parish registers and, in particular, are a useful adjunct to the registers of burials.

With hindsight I wish I had extracted surnames from the wills of several contiguous or nearby parishes from 1500-1600. They would have covered over half a century before the commencement of parish registers, a gap which I cannot fill from other records.

Beware. Although the results are fascinating the extractions are time consuming and one of the most boring genealogical tasks I can think off!

A study of the names of witnesses to a marriage might be helpful in a similar way. Fortunately www.freereg.org records the names of witnesses.

Besides my own family I also research the (not related) families that lived in my village of birth. I am especially interested in trying to link names of people to the names of farms. In the east of the netherlands you never know whether a name in a record is a family name or a farm name, or both.

In our region farmers owned some land, and often also had a share in the common grounds around the village. Those with share rights formed a self governing body (a mark(e)), apart from the civil hierarchy of state, province and community. .
I found transcryptions of the minutes of the meetings of board and members of the marke. Lots of odd details could be linked to farms and people. E.g. there was some Oldenkotte who got a fine for not fulfilling his duties as a member of the marke. It is still not clear whether this was the farmer on the farm Oldenkotte, or a man Oldenkotte, farming on the farm of my birth, named Gelink. Gelink was mentioned already in 1320! Bear in mind, that Oldenkott(e) is also the name of a hamlet, being half in the Netherlands and half in Hanover, later Prussia, now Germany. Enough to keep studying.

In the early years of the French revolution and the following conquest of western Europe there were several more or less hostile military entities traveling through the neighbourhood, taking what they needed by force (it's looting, I presume). Already in 1795 the province of Gelderland made an inventory of all damages, nicely sorted on names , grouped by village.
It mentioned the compensations the people were entitled to.

Alas, the list of damaged people only mentions the amount of their damages, not specifying their nature. But looking to the list of compensations, I see some names that also in the marke knew very well how to influence the odds...

So far the unusual sources :-)

Passport Applications at Fold3 contain information ABOUT the person in question according TO the person in question.

Fishing Atlases often show the original waterways before the flooding that created man-made lakes. Good for figuring out where your ancestor's land possibly REALLY was.

Some old church minutes give information about slaves which you might not find elsewhere -- their given names, the slaveholder and even some personalities if there were incidents involving them in the church minutes such as disputes with other members of the church.

Military pension and service files often contain letters to the archives from inquirers in the past. Also with the letters may be envelopes that show the address of the inquirers at the time they wrote their request for information. Some of these letters and envelopes date back to the early 1900s.

My newest "uncommon source" in 2019 is the USA Bureau of Land Management Land Records - https://www.blm.gov/services/land-records . I was researching how a particular family spread across the plains after leaving West Virginia, especially in Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska, and Colorado. They both squatted and homesteaded in multiple locations. This source provided me with the exact geographical locations of land they bought, maps of the area, when they gained ownership, and a list of surrounding land owners. I was able to find that two single brothers had moved to northern Colorado in 1883 from Iowa and each had homesteaded on adjoining 160 acres tracts. I also found the survey form one brother had filled out that described what he had done in the first three years he squatted on the land before asking for approval to purchase his farm. Quite illuminating - among other comments he mentioned he had built a one-room sod home, dug a 13 ft deep well for drinking water, and had spent months digging a mile-long trench from the Platte River to irrigate his farm fields. He also related that in the prior three years he had only left the farm once to visit his parents in Nebraska for two weeks at Christmas.

Commemorative benched in parks etc.

I don't mind sharing my most wonderful and unique source.
My mother and her sisters were all sent to an orphanage in NY which soon switched them to a Catholic-run orphanage on the end of Long Island, Suffolk County, New York. We were told stories and names about this "home", in which she spent from age 7 to age 15, when they were customarily released into the world to fend for themselves with help of a placement agency to do domestic work.
Anyway, with that background, I, by chance, called the school when I learned it was still operating since the 1920's. I was told that I could be sent her school information upon submitting proof of relationship and need. I believe I sent a copy of my birth certificate with her name on it, and desire to learn more about my family history. Note: a contribution should be made or offered to defray the cost of paper copies and postage.
When I received their package of around 60 pages, I was surprisingly shocked and elated to find from "day one" information on the first school/orphanage to the transfer and physical and mental examination results, who and what her parents' names were, that all the sisters were together and in different grades, school subjects and grades, communication with their father, who was an immigrant who could not afford to care for all those children on a dishwasher's and cook's income. When my mother left, she sent a couple of letters to the "Mother Superior" expressing herself very respectfully and lovingly to her. Also, provided was communications between the school supervisors and the then Welfare / Social Services departments.
What a find that all was! A wealth of information was given to me and I could make out a lot of their history, hardships, and relationships; the family began to come alive to me in a never before revealed way, for which I am forever grateful.

The comments to this entry are closed.