What Were Your Family's Firsts?

What Were Your Family's Firsts?

Every once in a while, I see an article or social media post that acknowledges a "first." Usually along the line of “the first woman to go to the moon,” these posts are educational and celebratory (though sometimes we may question why that "achievement" took so long).

Thinking about those types of acknowledgments made me wonder about family history firsts. What did your ancestor do that was a “first” for the family?

What family members had a “first?” These might be huge, maybe even award-winning, accomplishments or they can simply be activities that today seem run-of-the-mill but are still a “first.”

You probably have some “firsts” that you have personally achieved. Maybe like me, you’re the first person in your family to graduate from college. Perhaps you're the first person to become a US citizen. But what about previous generations? What firsts did your ancestors accomplish?

It can be difficult to decide what to write about our ancestors. How do you tell their story so it goes beyond just name, date, and place? What about telling the story of your family firsts? This writing prompt could help you enhance a family story that will interest the non-genealogists in the family.

What are some ideas for “family firsts” you could write about? Here are a few that I came up with:


  • First person to graduate from high school
  • First person to graduate from college
  • First person to earn a graduate degree


  • First person to ride in a car
  • First person to own a car
  • First person to fly in an airplane
  • First person to take an ocean voyage
  • First person to ride a motorcycle
  • First person to ride a bicycle


  • First person to work in a specific occupation
  • First person to join a labor union


  • First person to own a house
  • First person to own a radio
  • First person to own a TV
  • First person to have electric lights
  • First person to move off the farm


  • First person to serve in the military
  • First person to serve during wartime
  • First person to serve overseas


  • First person to cross the United States
  • First person to travel outside the country (maybe for vacation or immigration)
  • First person to document a vacation (photographs, correspondence, diary)


  • First person to have twins
  • First person to divorce
  • First person to marry multiple times
  • First person to be born in a hospital


  • First person you researched
  • First new-to-you cousin you met
  • First major discovery
  • First mystery you solved

In thinking about your family firsts there are so many ways you could use this idea to enhance your research and writing. As I wrote this, I realized I need to write about my first ancestor who fought in a war and continue that story through my other direct line ancestors who served in the military since then, from the Revolutionary War to Vietnam. That narrative would start with my “first,” my sixth great grandfather Benjamin Jones and would end with the last soldier in my family tree, my dad.

And obviously, these firsts you write about can include yourself (you might one day be an ancestor) as well as your ancestors.

What are your family firsts? I’d love to hear about them in the comments.


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.


Who Are the Experts?

Who are the experts?

Do you use Facebook? I use the social networking website to post genealogy resources I think other family historians will be interested in. I also post about women’s history and books, basically anything that I think might be helpful to my Facebook friends. When I’m not posting resources and sources I’m asking questions.

A lot of questions. 

Why? I believe that everyone is an expert in something. That expertise might simply be the experience of having lived in a specific place, witnessing an historical event, or eating a specific recipe. I know that those I network with have something that can benefit me as I try to understand my own family history and my ancestor’s life experiences.

Family history research requires us to delve into numerous types of records created over generations. That research requires us to know more than how to use a website search engine. For example, knowledge of country and county boundary changes and laws that impacted records help in seeking and finding documents. A good researcher doesn’t know everything. They know where to find information or who to ask.

A Sampling of Experts

You need an expert to answer a question, so who do you ask? Aside from using social media to find answers some other experts to consider include:

Professional Genealogists: Professional genealogists have two strengths, knowledge of genealogy methodology and how to solve problems. They also know the ins and outs of researching a specific place, either where they live or the location they specialize in. You can find professionals via organizations like the Association of Professional Genealogists, ICAPGen, or the Board for Certification of Genealogists as well as a local genealogy society.

Librarians: Librarians know how to find information. They know how and where to search. They can take your idea and turn it into finding the information you need. Luckily, there are different types of libraries (think: academic, public, private, national, etc.) which means librarians can specialize in information that you need for your research.

Archivists: What’s important to family history research is original records that are housed offline. Archivists can help you search their archival collections, explain records, and give you ideas for next steps.

History Society/Genealogy Society Volunteers: History and genealogy society volunteers love what you love….family and local history. They know the location you are researching and they know about their resources. They are the perfect people to ask about what resources are available and problem solve local history problems.

Who Else are Experts?

Those four groups of people are a good start when we consider experts to consult, but they aren't the only ones. The expert you need depends on your research question. I recently had a question about harvesting sea sponges so I asked my dive instructor son who answered scuba questions and shared some videos with me. I’ve asked genealogy related questions of everyone from family members, friends, professors and teachers, to complete strangers who I struck up conversations with and discovered a hobby or experience that I had questions about. I even consult other genealogists who have experience in research areas that I don’t.

So consider the ancestor you are researching. What was their occupation, religion, or the membership group they belonged to? Where did they live? What did they experience that you are not familiar with? What record might you find them in but you’ve never researched? What brick wall do you have that seems to be unbreakable? Experts not only help us find records and problem solve but they can also help us better understand a time and place. 

Don’t forget about the power of social media to reach out and ask questions. Facebook is a great place to join groups for the place your ancestor lived, for a topic that’s important for your research. Remember to download the Facebook group lists created and maintained by Katherine R Willson, Alona Tester, and Gail Dever to find groups that would benefit your research. If you are on Twitter, take a look at past genealogy chats or join in a future one to network with other researchers who may be able to help. Twitter genealogy chats include #genchat, #AncestryHour, and #BWBHour (Brick Wall Busters). Don’t forget to use social media to post your question and see who answers.

Genealogy is seen as a solitary pursuit but I know for me, my research is greatly enhanced by the questions I ask and the answers I receive from others. 

Who are your experts? What questions do you have that could use some crowdsourcing?


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.



What I Do Know About Betty

Name. Date. Place

Those three facts are not the most exciting information but it anchors our ancestors in a specific place and helps us connect them to family. A lot of emphasis is placed on vital records and the census but there are other records that provide a name, date, and place.


Bertha Chatham with two of her children. From the collection of Gena Philibert-Ortega
Bertha Chatham with two of her children.
From the collection of Gena Philibert-Ortega

Bertha Jane Tenro Chatham. The mother of one of my paternal great-grandmothers, she came to this country sometime around the late 1870s and found herself in Texas. She married an American man and they had 6 children in Texas before moving to Arizona and then California. Now of course some of the important events in her life happen in between census years which means I have to seek out additional records to place her in a specific time and place.

She’s one of those women in my family tree that I don’t know a lot about which can be frustrating when researching someone who is more recent. I do have cousins who were alive when she was and they have childhood memories of her. But her life prior to her marriage is a mystery (did she live in Berlin, Norway, Denmark or some other place?). And because she was “just a housewife” it seems like most of her life is not well documented.

Having said all of that, I do know one thing about Betty. She believed in women’s right to vote and she claimed that right prior to the passage of the 19th amendment.

Betty lived in three states (Texas, Arizona, and California) and while it’s not clear how long she lived in Arizona or when she exactly came to California I know that her last Texas child was born in 1910, she then gave birth to a child in Arizona in 1911, and her last child, born in California, was in 1915.

Arizona granted women’s suffrage in 1912. It appears that when men of Arizona were voting on this, her husband Joseph Chatham was registered to vote. He appears in the voting records as LJ Chatham a laborer from Texas in Hackberry, Mojave, Arizona, the place where their Arizona daughter was born. Although other Hackberry women are registered as voters in this record, Betty is absent from the voting records. Her husband registers in August 1912, but maybe voting was not on her mind considering she had 7 children in a span of 8 years and had recently moved to a new state. Voting might not have been high on her to-do list.

But at some point, between 1912 and 1915 the family moves to California. In October 1911, women’s suffrage barely passed in California. By 1916 we see Betty on the voter rolls in California, four years before the passage of the 19th amendment.

Betty Chatham in voter registration
State of California, United States. Great Register of Voters. Sacramento, California: California State Library. 1916.
via Ancestry.com

This is huge. Yes, it places her in a specific location and time which is important for genealogical research. But for a woman whose life is documented in records having largely to do with her marriage, her children’s births, and her death this gives us some insight into her beliefs. Anti-Suffrage campaigns painted women who wanted the vote as terrible wives and mothers. They were falsely accused of neglecting their children and husbands because they were too busy with matters that were not women’s concern. Anti-Suffrage campaigns claimed that women didn’t want the right to vote and that their husbands would conduct political matters on their behalf since they had their best interests in mind. Only evil could come out of women voting and besides the fact it made you less of a woman.

But Betty voted.

I know very little about Betty. What I know comes from the comments of a few cousins and the character of her daughter, my great-grandmother Mary Chatham Philibert who worked all her life, could run circles around anyone even as an “elderly” woman, and was an inspiration to me as I grew up.

I may not know a lot about Betty but the the voting register she appears in tells me something about her life.


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.


Picturing Your Ancestor’s Occupation


Blacksmith. Railroad Engineer. Chef. Logger. Farmer.

What occupations did your ancestors have? What do you know about those occupations? You might have proof of their jobs from records such as the census, city directory, or a child’s vital record but what did that occupation “look like?”

My dad, and the men in my paternal line for 3 generations, worked for the railroad. I know what that looked like. I visited the railroad yard with my grandfather and sat in the seat he spent his days in as an locomotive engineer. In my mind, I can still see that day and that up close experience. But I need to use images to pass along that part of my paternal family history to my children.

But what about other ancestors? Details about their occupation fills in the holes of their life story. Learning more about their occupation, telling that story using records and illustrating it with images (whether they themselves are in the pictures or not) helps bring our family history to life.

Sea Sponges at market

I started wondering about occupational images when I recently bought some postcards that looked “interesting.” The postcards are part of a series depicting the sea sponges industry. Those images led me to additional research about the jobs involved in the procuring and selling of sea sponges. Lucky for me my son is a scuba instructor and he provided me information about the divers tasked with sponge collection and provided me reference materials.

All that because of a postcard.

What Images Exist of Your Ancestor’s Occupation?

What images can you find for the occupation your ancestor had? Occupational images might be found on:

  • Postcards
  • Stereographs
  • Lithographs
  • Paintings
  • Photographs
  • Newspaper
  • Magazines
  • Books
  • Patents
  • Maps

What types of images are you looking for? Those depicting the actual job are an obvious choice but what about patent illustrations of a tool or device that had to with your ancestor’s job? What about the end result of their job (horseshoes for a blacksmith, planes for Rosie the Riveters)? How about a photo of where they worked?

Where can you find these? Start with digital collections. These can be through libraries and archives or separate digital collections. Some of my favorites include:

Don't forget to also search eBay. If you have an account, set up an alert for that occupation. That way you automate your search.

Illustrate Your Family Story

Everyone loves to look at images. Stories are more powerful when they are illustrated. Consider telling your ancestor’s occupation story with images.


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.

The Search for More about the Incredible Mary Ann Patten

Remember Mary Ann Brown Patten? In my last post, Mary Ann Patten: A Case Study I told you a little but about her amazing life and the beginning of my research into her life. I started with an online survey to see what information I could find. Next, I wanted to explore books and periodicals that could assist me in telling her story. Remember, these aren’t necessarily resources that will provide me genealogical data but instead provide me context for her life.

I’m going to begin by using WorldCat. WorldCat is a worldwide library catalog with over two billion items (books, periodicals, theses, archival collections). While not every library participates in WorldCat, it’s a great place to start my search. Best of all, I can enter my zip code or city to see what libraries “nearest to me” have the item I need.

My goal for using WorldCat is to see what books might help me learn more about Mary Ann’s life on a clipper ship. I want to also explore books that will help me learn more about where she lived, her family (her birth family but also the family she married in and created), maritime history, and 19th century Massachusetts women.

WorldCat Search


I know that the ship Mary Ann navigated was the Neptune’s Car so I’m going to search and see if I can find a history of that ship. The search for “Neptune’s Car” resulted in 64 results. A few of those results are children’s books and historical fiction accounts about the ship and Mary Ann, however, I did see one interesting result that I thought initially would be useful.


As I looked at this result I thought it might be a broadside celebrating Mary Ann’s historic voyage. Unfortunately, since it’s impossible for me to get to a library that has this item it may seem like I should not pursue it. However, I noticed that the website listed as having an online version is Newsbank. Newsbank owns GenealogyBank. Taking a chance I could find it there, I look and I do find it. However, although there isn’t a clear year when this item was printed, the month (April) listed on the item does not match when Mary Ann docked in San Francisco (December 1856). While it is an item I could use to tell the history of the ship it doesn’t directly deal with the time period that Mary Ann was on it.


My search of WorldCat does uncover some other archival items I’m interested in and not surprisingly one is located in San Francisco at the Maritime Research Library located at the Maritime Historical Center. It appears that this item is in the periodical American History (Feb 2005) which means I can look for it somewhere else. However, it’s a good reminder that since Mary Ann docked in San Francisco, I may want to look at manuscript collections in maritime museums and archives in San Francisco.


One other item that I am interested in is located at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem Massachusetts and is called [Material relating to the clipper ship Neptune's Car and Mary Ann Patten who assumed command of the ship when her husband, Captain Joshua Adams Patten became ill on a voyage from New York to San Francisco in 1856]. I’m not really sure what that is. It’s listed as a biography/book with 12 pages. But I’m unsure who wrote it or when or if it can shed anymore light on Mary Ann. After exploring the Peabody Essex Museum website, I decide that I’ll contact them and see what more I can learn about this items and other items that might help tell this story.

I want to momentarily go back to the historical fiction book about Mary Ann that I found on WorldCat. I don’t want to discount it as a possible help to my research. My experience is that most historical fiction authors conduct a lot of research into their subject. They visit libraries, archives, and interview historians. So I will read the book I found (The Captain’s Wife by Douglas Kelly) and see what insight and what sources were used in the compiling of this narrative. I also need to access the history I found on Neptune’s Car written by Paul W Simpson.

Now there’s much more I need to do in WorldCat including identifying other books about clipper ship history, the time period, the place where Mary Ann and Joshua lived, and even possible family histories. But for now, let’s move on to JSTOR.


If you haven’t used JSTOR, please do yourself a favor and explore it. JSTOR’s About page explains that it “provides access to more than 12 million academic journal articles, books, and primary sources in 75 disciplines.” You can sign up for a free account that allows you to save three articles at a time on a virtual bookshelf. You can also pay for a subscription or use it at a subscribing library (the Family History Library in Salt Lake City has a subscription).

Image5It seems obvious to me that I should have some luck finding articles written by historians about Neptune’s Car. I do a search on JSTOR and only receive 21 results. I have to admit this is disappointing but I realize I may need to do more searches using other keywords to find what I need. A few of my results deal with clipper ships but nothing that looks really promising.


So I play around with search terms. I use Mary Ann’s name and nothing relevant matches. I try a search on maritime women and receive some promising results that would help me better understand what it was like to be a woman on a ship. I then find one hit that looks promising.


I used Google Books to learn more about this book and read that

In 1852 Hannah Rebecca Crowell married sea captain William Burgess and set sail. Within three years, Rebecca Burgess had crossed the equator eleven times and learned to navigate a vessel. In 1856, 22-year-old Rebecca saved the ship Challenger as her husband lay dying from dysentery. The widow returned to her family’s home in Sandwich, Massachusetts, where she refused all marriage proposals and died wealthy in 1917.

Another woman who did almost exactly what Mary Ann did! The author of this book used Hannah’s writings that she donated to a historical society. I know I need this book to get ideas of sources and context for Mary Ann’s life.


Now do you remember in Part one I wrote about Eleanor Creesy? I had found her when I did a Google search and she had also navigated a clipper ship, the Flying Cloud. As I did more searching for her story I realized that I owned a book about her life appropriately titled Flying Cloud by David W Shaw. I pulled that book from my shelf and went searching for any relevant bibliography and sources. Now unfortunately there are no source citations in the book , however, he does say that the Flying Cloud’s log is at the Peabody Essex Museum (there’s that museum again, so it’s quickly becoming a must-visit for me). The author also talks about other sources consulted such as crew diaries, vital records, and archival collections. I’m going to use these sources as a guide for what I need to be searching. These collections he found were in varied places including Massachusetts and California reminding me that multiple locations could hold what I need and that our ancestors are found in the personal papers of others (remember the FAN club)?

Now What?

I still have a lot to do. I’m not done identifying all of the genealogical and archival materials I need. I have some books to read by authors who’ve done similar research. I also want to plan a trip to Boston and Salem to take advantage of various historical societies, maritime museum, and library collections. I’m feeling fairly confident at this point that I could find enough materials to describe what it was like for Mary Ann on Neptune’s Car and what she did with a combination of genealogy, local history, maritime history, and social history sources.


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.

It's OK to Take a Break

It's OK to Take A Break

One of my Philibert cousins discovered genealogy in her early 40s. This discovery led her on a journey where she did everything she could to find the answers to her family history mysteries. She learned French so she could read the records of our French-Canadian ancestors. She interviewed the neighbors of her immigrant grandmother to discover insights into her life. She strolled the grounds of the asylum where that same grandmother's life ended. She scanned and preserved the World War II letters of her parents, before that was a “thing” to do. She even took a trip to visit her paternal Eastern European homeland.

And then after almost two decades of enthusiastic research, travel, and sharing her findings with family via her annual Christmas letter she stopped. She took a break.

Now of course, genealogy is never “done.” She wasn't done. But she felt she came to a point where she could take a break. She took a genealogical break until I came around asking questions. She then picked it up and together we talked about family, looked over photos, and she generously shared the documents she had devoted years her to collecting.

My article A Genealogical To-Do List While You Keep Your Distance provides different ideas about what you could do if you are sheltering in place. I wanted to share those ideas because I know that sometimes I can lose focus and need a reminder of what I could do next. I thought that those who find themselves with a little extra time right now might enjoy some fresh ideas to choose from.

Some of us have been sheltering in place for over a month, I know that this time can be filled with stress. For some, this time of quarantine is filled with more to-do items than normal life requires. Some of you might be homeschooling, something you would have never volunteered to do. I homeschooled two kids so I know what type of effort that takes. Some of you might be taking care of loved ones who are sick. Even if your family is well, they are now home 24/7 which requires a lot of cooking, cleaning, and patience. I know this is a difficult time and emotions and feelings are raw and at the surface. Those feelings will continue the longer everyone's routines are disrupted.

That’s why I want you to know that I also think it’s ok to take a break. Put the genealogy research away. One of my friends said it best when he told me, “our dead ancestors aren’t going anywhere.”

Genealogy isn’t a contest. We don’t get a prize for having researched the most ancestors, writing the most narratives, or citing the most sources during a pandemic. It’s ok to say that you want to take a break. In fact, I think that taking a break can make us better researchers. I know I get some of my better ideas when I’m not doing anything related to research.

So this is a good time to binge watch that weird show everyone is talking about or to finally learn how to crochet, or to go photograph the birds outside. In addition to working I’m also trying to work on my GoodReads reading goal for the year (38 more books to go!).

Now’s the time to consider doing genealogy in a different way. We are so lucky to have access to online tools. Focus on your living family. Use video calls, online meeting rooms, instant messaging, social network websites, and email to connect with family. Ask them questions or provide prompts that will have them talking about memories of holidays, recipes, photographs, and family. Start a Facebook group for an ancestor and invite everyone to post what they know including photos of documents and heirlooms.

Use this time to create your own genealogy conference by creating a playlist of webinars. Use the Libby app to check-out books about genealogy and history. Connect with some of your online genealogy friends and meet virtually.

This is a great time to do genealogy differently. It’s ok to take a break. 

Best of all, do what’s best for you and stay healthy. Genealogy will always be here.


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.


Pre-internet "Cousin Bait" Creates 21st Century Resources


Some family historians refer to their blogs as “cousin bait.” Why? Because blogs and the information they contain leave a virtual paper trail for potential cousins to find. In all actuality there are various kinds of online cousin bait that researchers leave behind in the hopes that someone will discover our shared family history information and contact us. For example, online family trees are a form of cousin bait. Even online DNA profiles serve as a means to attract long lost family.

Those who have researched their family history prior to the advent of the Internet also left “cousin bait.” They accomplished this differently than today but it was still done with the same purpose, to find family history researchers for potential collaboration. One example of this older cousin bait is found in the page of Everton’s Genealogical Helper Magazine.

Started in 1947, at one time Everton’s was the genealogy magazine. For those of us who have been researching family history in the United States for longer than a few decades, we remember how Everton’s was a place to read how-to articles and scan postings by other genealogists hoping to network with long-lost cousins. While this kind of magazines is typically long forgotten when it ceases publication, in the case of Everton’s some parts continue to exist via the MyHeritage website.

One example of this is the Everton Pedigree and Family Group Sheets collection.

The Everton Pedigree and Family Group sheets

The Everton Pedigree and Family Group Sheets collection is “more than 3.5 million names in more than 150,000 pedigree charts and family group sheets.” MyHeritage explains that

Started during the Mar-Apr 1979 issue of Everton's Genealogical Helper, the information was originally gathered through user-generated submission via advertisement in Everton's Genealogical Helper, this collection displays the archival efforts of thousands of genealogical enthusiasts, all who are trying to connect with their relatives across time and space. The records within this collection may not be up-to-date to present day research, but they are believed to be up-to-date as of the date of reception of the individual record. All records have this date stamped on them. Many of the pedigree charts and family group sheets contain documentations and sources, although others simply cite the information collector, or the person who is sending in the material. Pedigree charts and family group sheets within this collection range in date from fourteen and fifteenth centuries (information on the charts, not the charts themselves) to the present.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. This is user submitted information so how good could it be? Point taken. Just like with online family trees, these should be used as a clue and researchers should do their own research to prove (or disprove) information provided. But even with that said, let me show you what you can find and the value of this content.

Consider this example of a Family Group Record for John Delbridge and Jane Nichols. On page two the submitter notes that some of the information for the husband and wife is from the 1870 and 1880 census for Mercer County, Pennsylvania, a marriage record, and a naturalization record. While not complete source citations they do provide clues that would need to be followed up on. But notice the sources for the children: “letter from Lena Delbridge to Richard Delbridge in possession of Florence Delbridge of St. Clairsville, OH; family records of Florence Delbridge concerning Richard; Wm Henry's birth record, marriage record, death record, and obituary; naturalization records; 1880 & 1900 censuses of Clay Co., IN; 1900 census Jefferson Co, Al; 1900 Census Belmont Co, OH.

The submitter also goes on to say that "many of the children were coal miners and moved from place to place with the availability of work." The thorough family history researcher would need to double check these sources, but what a clue they provide.




This next example, also a Family Group Record, I used in my recent free MyHeritage webinar available from Legacy Family Tree Webinars. I love this example from Harry F. Spitzer because it provides information that the submitter knew first hand.

Dad was a farmer all his life. Mom was a teacher at Star School in Bent Co., Not sure weather [sic] it was before or after she married dad. Mom died when I was very young (5 yrs old) from complications associated with cancer. Dad raised all of us kids with a lot of help from my older sisters especially Mary.


How great is that? He provides genealogically important information about his parents and siblings and then includes his own memories. Something we should all consider doing as we upload our own information onto online family trees.

I love this database because it provides us with ephemeral information from a magazine that no longer exists that we might otherwise assume wouldn’t still be available. It’s also searchable by every name, allowing us to find family members , especially women, with their nuclear family or the family they married into.

This MyHeritage database isn’t the only one that provides the ability to search Everton’s Genealogical Helper content. MyHeritage also has the Everton’s Genealogical Helper Magazine database which should also be searched. Researchers may find that someone else was looking for the same ancestor decades previously.

What Have You Found?

There are paper trails out there, and part of being a thorough researcher is knowing where to look. Unique databases on subscription websites provide us a glimpse of much more than just census or vital record information. The key is to search their catalogs carefully.


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.

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.

Did You Notice? Google Books Has a New Look

This month Google celebrates 15 years of providing digitized books to the world by updating the Google Books website. If you’ve heard any presentation I’ve given you know that I believe Google Books is the best non-genealogy genealogy website there is. Google Books provides family history researchers with free digitized books that include local histories, city directories, genealogically relevant periodicals, family history books and more. In addition, there are “card catalog” entries for books under copyright protection with the ability to find that book in a library or bookstore.

Google Books home

Google’s  blog post unveils the new changes and reminds readers that over 40 million books in 400 languages are available on the website.[1] This new redesign allows you to access everything you want to know about that book in one place. About the update, Google writes “We’ve redesigned Google Books so people can now quickly access details like the book’s description, author’s history and other works, reader reviews and options for where you can purchase or borrow the book. And for those using Google Books for research, each book’s bibliographies are located prominently on the page and the citation tool allows you to cite the source in your preferred format, all in one spot.” (Watch the video found on the blog post to catch genealogist Lisa Lisson talk about how she uses Google Books for genealogy). 

The new look is clean and allows you to easily read more about the book, the author, view the table of contents and a source citation.


Google Books 1


By clicking on the Search inside button you can page through the book or use a search engine to find your keywords of interest.


Google Books Add to my library

Don’t forget the Add to my Library button which allows you to place books on virtual bookshelves. This is a great feature for creating bookshelves for the surname, location, or topic you’re researching. You will need a Google Account (your Gmail credentials serve as a Google Account) in order to access this service.

Scrolling down the screen for the book you are interested allows you to easily find  a place to buy the book or enter your zip code for the library nearest you with that item via the worldwide library catalog WorldCat. The book’s page also shows other editions of that book.

Google Books 2

Are you using Google Books? If you’re not, start today! Conduct a search on your ancestor’s name or the place they called home. I know that you will find something you can use for your research.

[1] “15 Years of Google Books,” The Keyword (https://www.blog.google/products/search/15-years-google-books/: accessed 20 October 2019).


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.

Finding Genealogy Clues in Coroner’s Records

Did your ancestor meet a tragic or untimely death? Perhaps you tracked down his or her death certificate and it included a notation about an autopsy, and/or a medical certificate of death, with the signature of a coroner or medical examiner.

Death certificates are staples of genealogy research, but many times there is more to the story. Coroners investigated all types of unexplained deaths from drug overdoses to drownings, mishaps to murders, making their records useful for learning more about an ancestor.

A coroner is a public official whose primary function is to investigate by inquest any death thought to be of other than natural causes or occur under unusual circumstances. Sometimes an elected position, the Office of the Coroner dates back to the Anglo-Saxon Common Law system of government, making it the oldest administrative office. This is sometimes an elected position, and the individual may not have a medical background. The powers and responsibilities have changed over the years.

In general, coroners look at all available information to determine the cause of death (natural or not), decide whether to order a post-mortem examination (autopsy) if there are questions around the cause of death, and hold an inquest if the post-mortem shows the death was due to something other than natural causes. The purpose of an inquest is to find out the facts not for judging who was to blame. In many areas, the Office of the Coroner was abolished and replaced with the office of the Medical Examiner. Medical Examiners are appointed to their position and almost always are physicians (learn more here).

Bain News Service, Publisher. Coroner Israel L. Feinberg. , . [No Date Recorded on Caption Card] Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/ggb2006013195/. (Accessed May 08, 2017.)


In addition to detailing specifics about an ancestor’s demise, coroner's records can also reveal plenty of genealogy research clues. Typically, a coroner used a standard pre-printed form. The contents and format will vary by locality and time period may include some or all of the following:

Inquest form (details on deceased). If the coroner determined the cause of death was criminal negligence or murder, he held an inquest.
• Testimony/ies: During an inquest, the court appointed jurors and called witnesses to testify.
• Affidavit (testimony/deposition). Some of these witnesses may have been relatives, and in addition to their names and relationships to the deceased, the records might include their addresses.
• Postmortem findings (autopsies).
• Necrology report; Pathology Report, Toxicology Report
• Proof of identity

How to Locate Coroner’s Records

Coroner and medical examiner files generally are open to the public. If the ones you need are not, family history research may be a legitimate reason for access (check the local laws). Here are a few suggestions for starting your search.

First, check home and family sources (documents, photographs, etc.) and ask relatives if they can remember details about any unusual or suspicious deaths.

A quick Google search on the county and state, plus “coroner case files” or “coroner records” will usually turn up a website for the coroner or medical examiner office in the jurisdiction where the death occurred. Use online databases provided by the county or other government office. Sites such as Cyndi’s List and USGenWeb are also great resources for finding other websites. Also, the Online Searchable Death Indexes and Records site by Joe Beine offers a quick glance at different types of death records available online for free or in subscription databases. The site is organized by state and under Indiana has a link the Monroe County Indiana Obituary Index, which includes a downloadable PDF file of The Monroe County Coroner’s Reports (1896 – 1935) in a summarized table format. Below is a sample page.

[Image courtesy of Monroe County Public Libary https://mcpl.info/indiana/monroe-county-obituary-index; accessed 17 May 2019]

For older records, consider searching at state, regional, local or university libraries and repositories, or genealogical and historical societies. For example, I have had success with locating coroner case files for several ancestors in the Allegheny County Coroner Case Files housed at the University of Pittsburgh. You can view samples of their case files here.

Also, consult the FamilySearch Wiki online (do a keyword search for “Coroner’s Records”) to find digitized records now available online, or links to other FamilySearch Historical Records Published Collections. And don’t forget to check the Family History Library (FHL) catalog for microfilm available for viewing at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City (do a place search for the locality and look under vital records. For example, this digitized image from Coroner's records, Waterbury District, 1917-1931 (New Haven, Connecticut) on Family Search offers details about Irving Webster, who died on 1 January 1931 in New Hartford, from “a saw wound of the skull by being struck by a flying fragment of a circular saw.”

[Image credit: FamilySearch https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:3Q9M-C348-M95H-W?i=108&cat=530541 <accessed 17 May 2019>.


Scour historical newspapers for articles about your ancestor. Check websites such as GenDisasters.com to learn about disasters or tragic events, or search for blogs that discuss murder, suicides and other suspicious deaths in a locality. Google Books can turn up unusual record sets or books. For example, I found an eBook History of Pittsburgh & Environs and in it there is a photograph of, Samuel L. Jamison the Coroner for Allegheny County in Pittsburgh, whose signature appears on reports I located for two separate ancestors.

Researching Coroner's records may take some extra time and effort, but if you are lucky to find a file or report for your ancestor, there may be useful genealogy clues included to help you solve some of those family history mysteries.

To learn more about this record set, you may wish to check out my webinar on “Cause of Death: Using Coroner's Records for Genealogy” (available for subscribers in the Legacy Family Tree Webinars Library).


For over two decades, author and instructor Lisa A. Alzo has been educating and inspiring genealogists around the world to research and write about their ancestors. She has presented 45 webinars for Legacy Family Tree Webinars. Lisa coaches aspiring family history writers through her online courses at Research, Write, Connect https://www.researchwriteconnect.com