January 20th, 2012

Google Your Ancestors

ancestorsHave you ever seen someone ambling about on a beach with a portable metal detector? For a modest investment, Mr. Hobbyist has bought the thrill of searching and the hope of discovery. If he finds nothing, no skin off his nose (assuming he has applied sunscreen). But if he digs up a one-of-a-kind treasure, his time has proved valuable. Using Google for family history research is the same. Here are some tools and strategies I’ve used that have led me to discovery.

GOOGLE SEARCH ENGINE:  When using Google for genealogy, it’s best to type in a long string of search words, adding and subtracting words based on the kinds of results you’re seeing. For the best results, type your words in order of importance. For excellent tips on making the most of Google searching, read this excellent article.
My Discovery: The beauty of Google searching is finding gems in places you wouldn’t think to look. While I do not have any direct ancestors who hail from Oklahoma, my g-g-grandmother’s brother did, rising to prominence there. Because of that, he has an entry in an Oklahoman biographical dictionary, available completely online. In his entry I found information about my g-g-g-grandparents, including Civil War service!

GOOGLE IMAGES: Just as you can find textual information about ancestors, you may get lucky and actually find pictures of them. Be patient! Even when you don’t find what you’re looking for, you’ll likely find clues for further research.
My Discovery: Typing in one of the more unusual surnames in my family line along with the Dutch town we hail from, I immediately found pictures of distant relatives, old postcards, and pictures of Dutch newspaper articles about my family.

GOOGLE MAPS: Have you ever used the street view? When you zoom into a place on Google Maps, zoom in as much as possible. You can see exact pictures of the location.
My Discovery: Using census data, I’ve typed in the addresses of my ancestors to see whether or not a home still exists there and what it looks like. Using this feature, I can see that my great-grandmother had a gorgeous view of the English countryside.

GOOGLE BOOKS: Google has scanned many books for which copyright law no longer applies. You don’t have to know what book to look in for information about your ancestors. Just search using the same principles you would for a regular Google search – it searches full text!
My Discovery: It’s astounding all that I’ve found: advertisements of my g-g-grandfather’s business from the early 1900s; court cases my g-g-g-grandfather was involved in in the mid-1800s; and record of Revolutionary War service, to name a few.

GOOGLE TRANSLATE: Extremely valuable tool for translating foreign websites into English, communicating with historical societies, genealogists, and historians from abroad, and conducting smart Google searching for overseas ancestors.
My Discovery: It took me an embarrassingly long time to realize that the reason why I wasn’t finding a historical society for a small Dutch town wasn’t because it didn’t exist – it was because I was searching for it in English. Once translated to historische vereniging (and the town we’re from), it was the number one result. From there, I found a FULL genealogy of my family line back to the 1600s on their website and started corresponding with a historian there who e-mailed me pictures of my family!

What tips and tricks have you used to find information about your family?




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