Published: May 12, 2012 10:25 PM
Modified: May 10, 2012 10:05 AM
Stuck up the family tree
History and good mysteries are like peanut butter and chocolate – a delightful combo.I was intrigued when the U.S. National Archives, through an online partnership with Archives.com, released the 1940 census records a few weeks ago.In my family, I know our tree is made of blacks, whites and Native Americans – many family members I do not know.Since this data release includes occupations and salaries, I felt it was time to start answering these riddles.But when I finally checked the site, I left more confused than enlightened. No names to search by? Enumeration districts?Hmmm. I needed help. So I called the good people at the Durham-Orange Genealogical Society of North Carolina.This nonprofit organization preserves and researches family history in Durham and Orange counties.Though my family isn’t from the area, I figured they could help me in the search.Richard Ellington has been with the society for 20 years serving as its president and now the newsletter editor.He said private citizens, along with organizations like ancestry.com and familysearch.org, are currently indexing names in 1940 census searches. Only Delaware and Washington, D.C., have been completely indexed. Virginia is about 50 percent done whereas North Carolina has barely begun.Earlier census information, from 1930 for instance, has been indexed and is available.Ellington said there are ways to comb information to discover family history while indexing is being completed.“People used to hire people to do this,” he said. “If you can determine where they lived you can narrow it down.”Ellington suggested the “process of elimination.” The census release should be used as a tool in searches -- not the sole source. Most public libraries, for instance, have ancestry.com on their computers. Sites like ancestry.com and familysearch.org have older digitized records available. Since only about 10 percent of information like vital records is online, using sites like these help people find what is out there.Asking folks at the library reference desks what they know can help. Many libraries have state records rooms with copies of records, and there may also be local history rooms. The State Library of North Carolina, located on Jones Street in Raleigh, has a genealogy room with lots of material from the counties that can also help. Next, one may go to the local courthouse. Some counties now hold these records off site. In this case, a genealogical society may help.Ellington said don’t waste time reading pages after pages of records. Instead take digital pictures of pages with family names that can be taken home and studied. This way people can collect more info on what is relevant to their families. Now searching genealogy individually is much cheaper than hiring help. If there’s time to do it, then do so.Ellington said when hiring someone to search family history (or mysteries), they may need more information than we think we know.Doing the work oneself can jog memory about some old family story or person that may be a lead.If it means traveling someplace far, like California, then someone might have to be hired. Ellington called it hitting “brick walls” and a professional may need to be hired for their other available resources.“You don’t want people retracing your steps at $30 an hour,” he said. “Do the easy stuff yourself.”People should also look into other families in the community because they and churches moved as groups. Traveling was hard so everybody moved together.As Ellington said, “in the 1800s you married the person next door.”Ellington also said in searching don’t get stuck on spelling. Clerks keeping records back in the day usually wrote names as they heard them. Ellington has seen his name spelled with one “l” and without any “g.”Ellington told me he got involved in genealogy after his father died the last of his generation. He, like me, felt somebody needed to do this research.He said: “I tell my wife this is the best detective mystery you can find.”Koonce: email@example.com
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